Sir Rowen of Esclodia frowned as the chestnut stallion faltered and lost ground approaching the finish line. The stallion's rider whipped the horse mercilessly, as ordered by the knight, but it mattered not. Rowen's Red Sword took another second place.
"He should have won this time! I told that idiot rider to push him harder." Sir Rowen kicked the nearest fence post in anger. Instead of collecting a handsome prize, and a decent return on a bet, it would be one more evening sleeping on the hard ground. Rowen ignored the congratulations on the performance of his horse from onlookers. Didn't they understand that only wins counted? He weaved through the crowd towards his horse and men.
The racehorse was with the jockey, the trainer/groom, and a knight. They were by their camp, next to their wagon. The trainer, Vega, was walking Red to cool him off.
The jockey, a short, thin, bald man with brown eyes started shaking with fear. "I'm sorry, my lord, I did all I could, but Red couldn't give me anything more. I tried, truly, Sir, I did!"
"I highly doubt it, Darius." Rowen said, glaring at the beast. "His coat is barely wet. He wasn't pining his ears back on the stretch. I'll give you both one more opportunity to prove your worth. If you don't cross the finish line first next time, I shall let you & Vega go, and I'll sell that worthless beast."
"Please, Sir Rowen, he is getting better each race. His odds rise, too. He will win and you shall make your money back plus a handsome profit." the groom / trainer Vega said. He stared at his employer, willing to take a chance on behalf of the three of them.
Rowen thought for a heartbeat. He crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Very well, one more . We travel to Stagisvue in Seimerki for the race festival. He loses, you'll all gone." The knight gestured to another knight, "Javier, see that the horse is cared for properly. I'm going to get us supper."
"Aye, milord." the knight replied. After Sir Rowen left, Sir Javier relaxed - leaning against their wagon. "How is Red?"
Vega was still walking the chestnut stallion in circles, cooling him off. "The dumb beast is fine. I wish he'd keep his mind on running and off the fillies. Rowen was correct, Red should have won this last race."
Darius spat over his shoulder, walking alongside the trainer. "Are you blaming me, too? Great Kyregat, Vega, must I run Red's race for him?"
"Aye, Darius, it's up to you to make decisions during the race. You tell Red when to make his move, change leads, or speed up. I like having regular meals, decent clothes on my back, and the occasional bed to sleep in. Our comfortable life stops should our master toss us out." Vega finished walking Red, stopping at their camp. He tied the horse to the wagon. "Hey, Javier, hand me the brush."
Taking the grooming brush from the young knight, the trainer now turned groom brushed the horse, checking for injuries. Darius piled a mixture of hay and grass in front of the stallion. A bucket of water was set close by the stallion.
The three men were joined by Rowen. He passed out meat pies, cheese, and apples to each man. Once all had finished, they rolled out their bedding for the night. It was understood without saying, Rowen wanted an early start in the morning.
In the middle of the night, Rowen was restless. Unable to sleep, he sat up. The wagon horses, Hind and Hart, were looking at him, but Red had broken free of his ties. Cursing silently, Rowen slipped his boots on. He carefully walked to Red, not wanting to spook the stallion and spend the night chasing him.
Luck was with the knight. He was able to grab ahold of the racehorse's halter. Irritated, he yanked the horse in his direction, with a "Come on, you slug head."
This time he triple-tied Rowen's Red Sword to the wagon. Once the horse was secured, the anger within Rowen took over. He picked up the jockey's whip and began to beat the horse about the head, neck, and shoulders. Red protested, whinnying and rearing to the extent he could by his binds.
The fuss woke up the knight's men. All three rushed over to help save the stallion.
"Rowen, stop! He'll not be able to race if you injure him!" Vega called out.
"Please my lord, don't hurt him!" Darius begged.
"Milord, beating the horse is pointless, he won't understand why." Sir Javier said aloud.
Rowen's arm tired. He threw the whip to the ground. Breathing hard, he stared at the men. "If that horse doesn't win the next race, I swear I'll geld him and sell him to the army." He stumbled past the three men, dropped down to his bed roll and went back to sleep. Javier followed Rowen, wanting to talk, but the older knight was already asleep.
Vega and Darius calmed Red. After the stallion was settled, the two men treated the welts. Vega prayed to Kywedyn for help. Only a miracle would save the horse from his master's heavy hand.
Kywedyn was angry. One of his creatures screamed out in pain. The God heard the horse's cry for help. Kywedyn touched Red's mind. Unhappy with the story, he pulled the one responsible for the horse's misery to stand in front of him.
Rowen felt strange. He stood in a vast forest. The tops of the trees were higher than he could see. The floor of the forest was thick with moss and leaves, with delicate wildflowers and fungi growing here and there.
"Human! Explain yourself!"
Rowen turned his head from side to side, looking for the person that belonged to the voice. "Who are you and where am I?"
"It is not important. You have abused one of my creatures to the point that he called to me for help. You threatened to geld him for doing his best? Do you spend your free drowning kittens or pulling the wings from butterflies?"
A presence threatened to choke the life out of Rowen. A divine anger surrounded the knight like a blanket, squeezing and pushing, until he was gasping for air. He was gasping, his hands flailing for help. Black dots floated in front of his eyes, slowing growing larger. An invisible stick started smacking his back, adding to his agony.
Suddenly it all stopped. The heaviness disappeared and he was able to breath. Rowen fell to his knees, sucking in mouthfuls of air. His vision cleared. He saw a pair of feet standing directly in front of him.
"Don't bother standing up. I like you better in a humble position."
"Who are you?"
"Kyregat, ruler of the beasts."
Rowen knew the God was telling the truth, and that he was in deep trouble.
Kyregat wasn't laughing. "For years I have heard of your misuse of my children. Tonight, was the last time you will ever hurt one of mine again."
"I am sorry, milord. I swear I will make it up to you and the horse."
"Fool!" the God spoke. "There were many times you could have changed your ways. I grew tired of waiting. As of the moment I send you back, you will be the recipient of the abuse, the quiet servant, and one who is passed around. You shall become what you belittled over the years, and the one who took your abuse shall take your place."
"I don't understand."
"You will." Kyregat touched Rowen on the shoulder, sending the knight into a free fall.
That morning when Rowen woke up, he felt strange. His vision was odd, and he couldn't touch his face. Shaking off the sleep he looked around. To his horror, he remembered the dream & the God's words. He was a horse, Rowen's Red Sword to be exact. Turning his neck, the former knight saw what he was and screamed inside his mind.
The knight, Sir Rowen woke before the others. He too, felt odd, but with the information imprinted inside his brain by Kywedyn and Rowen's memories the former horse now human, Rowen quietly walked over to Red with confidence. He ran a hand down the horse's neck.
Rowen's Red Sword shivered with fear.
"How are you, Sir Rowen? The tide has turned for us. You had best behave. Wait, what was your threat? Oh yes, you'd geld me and sell me to the army if I lost the next race." He laughed. "I shall think carefully on whether I will carry out the punishment you promised or not. Sleep well my friend..." Rowen turned foot, quietly walking back to his bedroll. He laid down, enjoying the feeling of stretching out, the softness of the fur on his skin, but mostly he loved the sensation of being free. No more was he a slave to man. Now, he was the master. The newly made human man drifted off to sleep, dreaming of his future.
The next morning, Sir Rowen apologized to his companions for his actions. Rowen claimed he had a change of heart on the treatment of the animals as he slept. He still wanted Red to have one more race, after which he would decide on their next course of action. Sir Rowen helped break down the camp. He rode on the front seat
Three days later the four men arrived at Stagisvue. Sir Rowen went to register his horse for the race while his men set up camp at the edge of the meadows reserved for race participants. Sir Javier followed his friend, keeping an eye out for pick pickets.
Darius unhitched Hind and Hart, the pair of bay mares serving as the wagon horses. Both mares were ex-racehorses who doubled as broodmares. Rowen's Red Sword was a son of Hind, by Red Wolf, a champion runner owned by the Baron of Faucione. Vegas rubbed Rowen, checking for any injuries.
After paying the entry fee, Rowen and Javier scoped out bookies. The knights decided against making any bets until Red's race day, on the morrow. The men expected the odds to rise against their horse. After all, hadn't Red lost more races than he'd won? The last couple of horses who'd beaten him were running in the same race.
"Javier, place our bet with Mikel of Lazel at dawn. He promises the odds at the time of the bet is what he pays. Right now, he shows Red at 12 to one. I suspect Red's numbers will go up."
Javier smiled, "I agree, milord. I heard other men speaking. They say Mikel is fair. He won't cheat us out of any winnings."
Morning brought a hint of crispness, a promise of winter weather ahead. Shivering, the four men rubbed exposed flesh with hands to get circulation moving, hovering around the campfire. A pot of water was boiled, enough oats tossed in to make oatmeal for a morning meal. A smaller pot was suspended from the steel bar, next to the larger cooking pot. It held water for tea.
The four companions broke their fast in silence. Today would determine whether they left Stagisvue wealthy men or paupers. Darius checked the tack to see if any last minute repairs were needed. Vega brushed Red. Rowen cared for Hind and Hart while Javier went to place the bet on Red.
After Darius was done going over each piece of tack, he dressed for the race: tan chauses, tan leather boots and a green and white checkered shirt with a five-pointed star in the middle to denote Rowen's status as a third son. The colors represented the heraldry of Rowen's family, the Barony of Esclodia in Sharlyger.
Sir Rowen was anxious. Too many humans congregated around him. He wanted to run off towards the plains of Camportney. He could smell a faint scent of Luqua in the air. The wild cousins of horses avoided man whenever possible, their striped bodies helped the creatures blend in with the tall grasses of the prairies. No, I may no longer a four-legged, but I am still a proud stallion at heart. No stallion of the people is a coward. I must use my new form to help my true people.
Vega saddled Red, not surprised when he had to struggle at getting the stallion to accept the bit.
"Anything wrong?" Rowen asked Vega.
"Nay, he's just nervous today, but I'm not worried. He's on his toes."
Javier gave Darius a leg up, patting the stallion on his neck. "He looks great today. I've been praying to Kywedyn for a victory."
"Aye, as have I." Darius replied. "There won't be any need to geld this guy. Come on son, we have a race to win." He clucked to the horse, urging him to walk on.
Sir Rowen slapped his horse's hindquarter's, with an encouraging "Go get 'em!"
Rowen was panicked. I can't do this! I'm a man, not a horse. He tried to move away from the track, only to feel Darius' weight shift and the reins pull his head in the direction of the starting line. The three men walking beside him helped block his exit. I can't get away! An unseen force seemed to push at him from behind. Was Kywedyn here? Rowen had to assume so. Heartsick, he gave in.
Darius guided the chestnut to his assigned spot in front of the rope strung across the makeshift dirt track. A grey gelding was bumped by a bay stallion, and he in turn, bumped Rowen. The chestnut snapped at the grey. Darius yelled at the Grey's rider to put some space between their mounts. On Red's other side, a chestnut reared in nervousness.
The starter pulled a lever, raising the rope. Whips snapped against shiny coats as muscles strained and a dozen horses leaped forward. Men, women, and children yelled as one, their rank and class divisions temporarily set aside.
Red's nostrils flared, his lungs filling with air. He didn't want to be in the middle of the herd, getting hit with clouds of dirt in the face. He tossed his head, fighting Darius' tight grip on the reins.
"Stop that fuss, Red." Darius growled, "Save your energy for the stretch run." When the stud still tossed his head, the jockey smacked him with the whip.
The shock of being hit startled Rowen. He quit his struggles and let the jockey dictate his actions via the reins. There were three horses behind him.
"That's my boy." They approached a set of trees, which marked the first turn. Darius swung Red, around a black horse, the gelding wheezing as he tried to keep up. Red felt great, Darius let his horse go by two more runners.
On the backside straight away, Red was running smoothly. There were six horses ahead of him.
I want to run, let me go! Rowen felt like he was flying. His heart beat in sync to the rhythm of his hooves pounding on the ground.
The final turn came into Rowen's view. he increased his speed a little. he could feel Darius raise his body and lean forward. The moment they came out of the turn, Rowen switched leads without a thought. He started to take off when a nightmare occurred in front of him.
Two horses clipped heels, both going down in a tangle of legs, arms, and leather. Their four bodies thrashed, screams of pain coming from horse and human both.
There was no time to avoid the crash. Rowen gathered himself and jumped. He sailed over the pile, clearing horses and riders. landing hard, Rowen took off, ignoring a twinge of pain in his left foreleg.
"Now, Red, let's go and win this race!" Darius urged.
I can do this, I can win this! Rowen grunted as he poured on the steam. He gave his all, passing two more runners. No horse is getting past me today! He caught up to the last horse in front of him, a bright bay. The two of them fought up to the end of the race, one and then the other sticking his nose in front. At the finish, Rowen's Red Sword was the one with his head in front.
Rowen, Javier, and Vega screamed with joy. They slapped each other's backs in celebration, yelling "We've won! He did it!"
"Alright, finally, Red won a decent race. Follow me, friends, let's go collect our horse and his prize. Then, we'll pic up our money." Sir Rowen said with a large smile.
Pushing through the crowd, the three men met a grim-faced Darius who was leading the chestnut back to the starting point. The stallion was lame, favoring his left foreleg.
"I'm sorry, he must have landed wrong when he jumped over the fallen horses. I never heard anything, but he won't put any weight on the leg now." Darius was crying. "My poor Red."
A man carrying a silk purse met Sir Rowen. He shook his head. "That was an incredible performance. I pray to Kywedyn your courageous horse will survive his injury. here is your prize: 40 gold crowns."
"Thank good sir, we will do what we can." Sir Rowen said. "The bone hasn't broken through the skin, we shall see how he is in the morning." Rowen turned to Javier. "Go collect our winnings. I'm going to help Vega and Darius get Red to our camp."
Fire, agony, the worst pain he'd every felt ran up and down his leg. Hurts, don't make me move, please...
Red stopped, refusing to take another step. He could feel a grating in his injured leg. How can I get it across to my men that my leg is broken. Just moving the leg brought almost brought Rowen to his knees.
Vega gently ran his hands down Red's leg. Just when he passed the stallion's knee, Red squealed, trying to move away.
Vega choked back further tears. "Hold him still! I need to feel the leg to determine how badly he injured it."
Rowen, Javier, and Darius surrounded the stallion. Each man talked soothingly, patting the horse.
The trainer could feel irregularities in the cannon bone. The bone may not have completely fractured, but there was a break. He stood up.
"I'm sorry, my lord. It's a partial break, along with some soft tissue damage. The leg's already hot. If we lived local, we could take our time and maybe confine the horse until the bone heals, but we're a long way from home. He'll never make it to Sharlyger."
"I'm sorry, too." Sir Rowen replied. He pulled his belt knife from its sheath. "I truly am." He prepared to cut the horse's throat.
"Hold! I'll take him!" a man's voice yelled out."
All four heads turned around.
The Duke of Stagisvue, Prince Briac approached them, his retinue with him. "I'll not see such a brave horse put down without given a chance at healing first. Liall, give Sir Rowen 40 gold pieces for this stallion and make arrangements to slowly get the horse to my stables."
"Aye, Your Grace. Joren, you and Donal handle the horse." Two men jumped to take care of the stallion.
"Your Grace, thank you." Sir Rowen said, "He's a good racehorse. I pray he will recover." He rummaged through a bag in the wagon. "Here, this is his breeding."
The Prince took the paper. "I will give the horse every chance to heal. He showed his heart by winning after leaping over the fallen horses today."
Rowen walked back to the horse. He patted the stallion's cheek. "Good luck, Red. Behave for your new masters."
Sir Rowen grinned, "Friend, we have lost our racer. Where shall we go?"
"I've always wanted to see Helfai." Javier said. "The women are supposed to be wild, the country beautiful, and the hunting is almost as good as that in Iraedonia."
Rowen rubbed his chin. "Hmm, Helfai? Any objections?" When no one answered he clapped his hands together. "Well then, Helfai it is!"