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The Gift Horse by Maria Kyle

In a time that was not now, in a place that is not here, there lived a fierce warrior-king and his loyal wife. This king had dominion over a vast sweep of the earth, from here to there and beyond, for he was lord of the Stallion people, before whom all armies fled. His wife, Ayilfa, had loved him well and borne him many strong children, but now she was as old as he, and 50 summers had seen her hair fade from rich chestnut to dapple grey.

One day, after they had been on their morning ride together, he called her into the stables to look at an old bay mare. She had been a magnificent runner once, spry and light on her hooves, faster and nimbler than a zephyr, and had bred many fine warhorses. But now she shambled along slowly, her swaying sides skinny, her muzzle dusted with white hairs.

“What shall we do with this faithful old servant of ours, my dear?” said the king, turning to his queen. She looked into the horse’s dim eyes and smiled.

“Well, she will not make good meat, and she is still sturdy, if past her breeding days. We should bring a new filly in for the stud stallions, and turn this one loose on the lush plains where she may wander where she will for the rest of her given days.”

“You have spoken wisely, my dear,” said the old king, handing his wife the mare’s reins. “And as for she, so for thee. A king needs many sons, and so I must have a new queen to bear them. You are free to wander where you will for the rest of your given days.”

The queen was shocked and fell to her knees. “Why may I not stay here in the palace, to look after my children and enjoy my autumn years?” she begged.

The king smiled. “Our youngest child is 12, a woman already. Besides, she will have a new mother soon – and I do not think the new queen will like to see you about the palace: it would be…awkward.”

And so the queen-no-more-a-queen was turned out of the palace upon the old bay mare with a suit of riding clothes, a parcel of food and a satchel of gold, to wander the world where she willed. Needless to say, she was speechless with rage at the king’s treatment of her, and for the first few days she rode blindly in whatever direction the mare wanted to go – for she was a formidable horsewoman herself, and they say the Stallion women are born in the saddle.

When, after a week or more, she at last looked around her, she saw that she had come clean out of her former husband’s domain and into the neighbouring kingdom to the north. The lush steppes had turned to flat fertile marshlands, and she saw the castle of her husband’s enemy rising from the swamp.

“Very well,” she said to herself, “if my king will make me his enemy, I shall make his enemy my friend.”

She rode up to the drawbridge and begged an audience with the young Lord of the North. He was a handsome boy, about the age of her eldest son, and had not yet married. She rode right into the throne chamber without dismounting, and bowed low from her seat on the mare.

“Well, madam,” said the Lord, “I recognise you. What business have you with me?”

“The king of the Stallion people has discarded me, and I come to offer you victory over him in battle and dominion over his lands.”

The young Lord raised his eyebrows. “That is an offer indeed. And what must I do to deserve such a valuable gift?”

“Marry me,” she said at once, and his eyebrows lifted further. “I am no longer beautiful, nor can I bear you sons. But I can breed and break horses, and train them for battle; I know all my husband’s strategies and weaknesses, and I promise that together, we could conquer him.”

The young Lord pondered deeply, thinking that there must be some magic in this. Then at last he said, “Very well – I know the old stories, and I expect that if we marry, on our wedding night you will turn into a beautiful maiden and bring me many sons as well as many victories.”

He stood and went to hand her down from her old mare, but she would not give him her hand.

“I am as I appear, my Lord,” she said sadly, “and I cannot offer you youth, beauty or children, only wisdom, experience and victory.”

The young Lord rolled his eyes and said, “Well, in that case, I cannot accept. Better luck elsewhere!” And he slapped the bay mare on the rump to send her cantering out of the castle.

The queen was not discouraged, however: her former husband had enemies at two more points of the compass, and she would not rest until she had tried them both. So she rode east for a week and came at last to the magnificent sandstone complex of the Caliph of the desert kingdom. Here she was again recognised and granted an audience, and here again she made her offer. The Caliph was a little older and wiser than the Lord of the North, and did not mind that she was no longer young and lovely, for he had a harem of beauties with whom to dally. Besides, she was about the same age as his own chief wife, on whose advice he always relied.

He too, after his chief wife had whispered in his ear, accepted her offer, for he greatly desired to add the lush steppes to his empire. But again, he believed there to be magic involved.

“I have heard the old songs and legends,” he said, smiling, “and I know that although your mare there looks about ready to be made into stew, when I put that ring on your finger she will no doubt become the finest warhorse I have ever seen, perhaps even sprout wings, and I will ride her to victory against the Stallion King.”

“I’m afraid you have misunderstood,” said the queen quietly, and without waiting to be dismissed, turned her mare around and ambled away.

The last king to whom she could make her offer was her best hope, however, and so she tried to keep her spirits up on the long trek south. The ruler of the hilly Southlands was older even than her husband, and she prayed that this would make him wiser, too: she knew he would surely hunger for victory over his enemy the Stallion King as the other two had.

But when she rode up to his palace, which sat atop a mountain wreathed in snow, she saw black banners snapping in the wind and her heart sank. In the audience chamber sat a boy of no more than 20 with a yellow crown upon his head, and she knew that this must be the old king’s son. Hope shrivelling in her breast, she explained her bargain again.

“Your grace,” she said, bowing her head, “I must add that there is no magic and no hidden clause to this offer I make. I am all that I seem and nothing more. My mare and I are under no curse nor glamour save the curse of age, which nothing can break.”

The boy stroked his soft beard and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well. Here is how I view it. I have youth, vigour and energy, which you have not. You offer me wisdom, experience and victory, which I have not. You will teach me to ride and breed and train my horses until they are a match for the Stallion King’s. You will also teach me the ways of love, in which I am ignorant, the way no virgin bride could. I am young, I have many brothers: I can wait for sons with a second wife, but I cannot wait for victory. It is a bargain.”

And he put out his hand to lift her down from the old mare, and she took it.

Together, over the next dozen years, they took victory too; not just over the Stallion King but over the Lord of the swampy North and the Caliph of the burning East. And when the old queen lay on her deathbed some 20 years later, her 40-year-old husband held her hand and wept, for if he had been wise enough at 20 to value her above rubies, how much wiser was he, and more precious was she to him, now? Her Stallion children wept too, for she had begged her husband to spare them and treat them kindly, and they loved both the new king and the old queen.

“Do not weep, my love,” she told him, and took her youngest daughter’s hand and put it in his. “You have long been a good father to your subjects. Now you are wise enough to be father to kings.”

And she sighed, and died, and at last her Stallion spirit was turned loose on the lush plains of eternity, where it might wander where it willed, galloping and gamboling like a foal on the first day of spring.

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