O R I G I N
It had been raining for four days when he left the estate to meet his father by the stable, and it was raining yet. He had been standing under the same thatch awning for over an hour and he had drank all the water from his pouch and he’d eaten the last bit of cheese he remembered to pack for breakfast before his father would come to meet him for the hunt. His brothers had come and gone and the stables were all but empty, save for one horse that stood quiet in the farthest stall, the mare’s mane and hair as black as crow feathers. The door to the stable hung open and the rain fell all around in the empty muddy field and gathered in tributaries that flowed on either side of the roughly hewn Imperial road. The stony path cut through the hills and led not only to his home, but to other roads and other homes. As he waited, Belisarius watched the dim sky, her bold clouds low and dark and brooding. He felt the wind slice through his leathers and the mist sprayed his face and he held his arms to fight back the shiver and secretly he wondered why his father insisted to hunt on the eve of winter. He was only sixteen, but he felt older.
Up the stony road, from the low farmhouses that were sunk to their skirts in mud came forth a figure draped in a saddle blanket, trundling up the way to the stable. As she came nearer, the blanket slipped off her sodden head, revealing her to be a scrawny and pale-faced thing on the cusp of womanhood, all angular limb and awkward gait. She was towheaded in a way that would almost certainly dull to a dark blond by the time she reached adulthood. Accustomed to walking with her head down, she did not see that the master’s son standing upon the threshold between the cold and wet and the steaming dry. As she looked up, tugging the blanket off her head, she gasped softly, before folding the cloth under her arm. “’Scuse me, sir, I didn’ know you’d be about.”
Belisarius stepped aside and held open the door to the stable, iron hinges rusted and creaking. “You needn’t apologize,” he said, his voice calm yet hoarse, as though he hadn’t found a good night’s rest in quite a long time. “It is I who is probably intruding on your regular schedule of duty.” He looked back out at the field where the water stood in pools all around. Worms crawled out of the dirt and wriggled every which way to escape the deluge and Belisarius thought he could smell them. He traced his eyes down the road and across the hills, but seeing no one else, he ducked back into the stable where he began to explain himself.
“My father scheduled a hunt this morning, but he is either late, or he and my brothers left without me.” He frowned and reached up to remove the thick wool hood that covered his head. The Colovian’s hair was cropped tight, mostly shaven after the military fashion, excepting a thin strip of hair across the crown of his skull, the brown hair resembling a ridge of mountains on a beige plain. His grey eyes watched the girl for a moment. There was something about his gaze that was older than his years, some discernment not typically found on a sixteen year-old nobleson. “Are you the new stable help? Your father is from Kvatch.”
She nodded, awkwardly, turning away her white face lest he see the tint of a gauche red staining her cheeks. Damp hair clung to the nape of her neck as she draped the saddle blanket over a stall door to dry. She turned her gaze downward. “Yes, milord. But we never had horses there. I never even touched one, really.”
“Never touched one?” Belisarius said. Both his eyebrows raised at the girl. “Well we will need to change that immediately, especially if you are to serve in in the House of Lord Varro. Come.” He beckoned her toward the far end of the stall where he led her through the narrow dirt causeway. Hay lay strewn about the flooring, most of it collected in the trench that ran along each row of stalls. Horse droppings and urine and more straw collected in the trench, some of it fresh, most of it old. “As you can see, this will need to be cleaned.”
He kept walking to the very last stall. He stopped and reached over the wooden gate to press his bare palm against the horse’s cheek. The dark-haired mare leaned into his touch, black eyes disappearing briefly as the animal’s eyes closed in apparent pleasure. “This is Mara. My dearest friend. Go on, touch her just like that. She will not bite you.”
The girl’s white and timid hand reached up to rest upon the bony ridge between the mare’s cheek and her muzzle. With thin fingers she brushed gently along the bridge of the convex nose, and Mara gave a low, murmuring whinny at the girl’s gentle hands. “How long have you had her?” the girl asked, less timid now as she tiptoed to brush the mare’s ebony forelock away, tucking it over her broad, black brow. “She’s very beautiful.”
“She is, isn’t she.” Belisarius smiled at the horse and continued brushing at the animal’s cheek. “She likes you. Perhaps she has made a new friend.” He chuckled softly, then explained: “I’ve had her for a year. My uncle gave her to me as a birthday present. I’ve never had my own horse. But my brothers and I, we all learned to ride when we were very young. Would you like me to show you how to ride?”
The girl blinked slowly at the invitation; in her mind there lurked an inherent incredulity that anyone could show her a mite of consideration, let alone a young eques. Her hand fell away from the mare’s head as she wrung her fingers cagily, peering up at him through eyelashes. “I don’t see why you’d want to teach me. I’m just the stablehand’s daughter, and you… you’re a lot more.” She faltered as the fading blush on her cheeks pulsed. She reached for the rake sitting up-ended in the corner of the building, using the chore her father sent her to do to disguise the sudden ungainliness in her posture.
He watched her for some time, watched her scrape the rake along the packed earthen floor, where she dragged stray straw and horse droppings into a pile. A mask of remorse shadowed his face, and in his mind he wondered if he would have responded as she did, if he stood in her shoes.
Resolved to make the decision for her, Belisarius climbed atop the saddle of his horse, where he belonged. His body seemed to mold to the mare’s contours and his boots seemed made for the stirrups. In an instant he urged the horse out of the stall and down the stableway where he leaned over and in one powerful swoop, lifted the young girl into the saddle where he held her with one arm. He pressed his heel into the horse and off they went, galloping into the rain.
“Are you frightened?” he called out to her. Mud flung up wildly as they fled free into the field.
Mara’s flank grew speckled with mud as she was spurred across the sodden fields, her hooves churning up furrows of earth, the falling rain pelting steed and riders all as they sped. The girl clung to the horn of the saddle, braced against the wind and rain that whipped at her face, felt as though the very land was racing away from them with each pounding beat of the mare’s hooves.
She had never moved so fast in her life, but the pulse of excitement that thudded at the base of her throat was not fear. It was thrill.
“No!” she gasped, cleaving to the saddle with her legs.
“Good!,” he said. “I believe you. Horses can sense if their rider is afraid. This will be a short ride, I promise.” He shifted hands so he could take the reins with his left and point off to his right. “You haven’t seen the Varro estate yet, have you? I’ll show you.”
He led the horse south through the field, where the muddy wash gave way to fields of golden wheat ripe for harvest. The horse’s gait slowed when they reached a creek, the water fast-moving and so clear you could see the crawfish clinging to the smooth, mossy stones. On they went, galloping under trees that dripped rain water, jumping over beaver dams made of brush, climbing out of boggy trenches filled with wash. At last they ascended a hillock that overlooked the valley. There, in the distance, rested a white-stoned villa. The roof was capped with maroon shingles and the courtyard was filled with alabaster statues and carvings of warriors of old mounted on famous horses. A paved road led to a gate, over which hung an archway carved from a solid stone of marble. Etched in it was the sigil of the House: a horse reared up on its hind legs. Leading to the gate were rows of tall pine trees, each of them meticulously trimmed, like sentinel towers watching.
“That is my home,” Belisarius said. He adjusted his wool cloak so it was covering them both. “It can be your home too, if you learn the ways of the horse. The best of our decurions come from Kvatch and Anvil, you know. They are positions based on merit, not on blood. Much like the pit-fighters. The best of warriors climb to the greatest heights.”
In the narrow confines of her young life of scullery fires, mud-slicked cobblestones and wholesale degradation, the girl had never imagined this. The narrow cypresses were dark and pointed against the golden barley and the wind and rain sent undulating ripples through the tallest ears and sent them swaying, dancing. She never knew that corn could dance, and watched, mesmerized, one pale hand gripping the edge of the young master’s cloak where it draped over her shoulder. She shuddered in the cold as he held her, but all inside she felt feverish and knew, for the first time, that she wanted something more than bread or milk or the kind touch of a father that lay all his nights in drink.
But she tucked her gaze low, and inside her she already knew she was not made for a world shaped of marble and alabaster.
“Maybe one day,” she murmured, and turned her head away.
The days turned to weeks and the harvest came and went and soon the days of autumn faded and all the world knew was grayslacked skies and frostcovered mornings of cold ground and bones. The stable had been made warm for winter--extra boards over the windows stuffed with hay, blankets for the horses, and a hearth built in the center where coals were raked and logs were turned and meat was cooked by the sentries as they came and went and took their horses on patrol.
The riding lessons never stopped, however. Belisarius had set out to teach the girl, and so he made time every day to meet her early in the morning, before her chores, before his studies, before any prying eyes might see. He liked to train her before the thoughts of day could entrap her mind, before the words of men could taint the beauty of the land, before she could know anything else beside the horse’s strength between her thighs. The hooves crushing dirt. The scents of the wind cool on her face.
But today, the lessons would stop. And he didn’t know how he was going to tell her.
He was quiet when he entered the stable that day. He was quiet when he opened the door and carefully replaced the latch. He was quiet when he saw the girl beside the fire and he was quiet still as he walked to her in his riding leathers. He stayed quiet in the cool morning and all that existed between them was the sound of wood popping on the hearth. The lids on his eyes drooped more than they should and he tried to hide them underneath his hood. Finally he looked at her and smiled a smile that wasn’t a smile.
“I can’t train you today,” he admitted. “I can’t train you at all anymore, I’m afraid.” He took an iron poker from the hearth and stoked the flames. The log rolled and the orange coals ignited and both their faces went awash with warm orange heat. “My parents have arranged a marriage--well, my mother has arranged a marriage. And I am to be wed this evening. It would no longer be appropriate for us to meet like this.” He swallowed and pulled his lips into his mouth to wet them. For a moment his mouth disappeared and he met her gaze like some creature held by gag order. Then he spoke again. “I hope you understand.”
The girl’s shoulders rolled down and she said nothing. Her lips parted once, twice, but she closed her mouth and stood up; lit by flame her shadow fell long and gangling across the stall doors, neck-bent and broken. “I understand, milord.” Her voice hitched in her throat, making it clear that she was not as understanding as she claimed to be. Her pale eyes wandered down the stalls, where rows of dark, velvety muzzles peered out in the gloom. She stood, facing an empty stall. “Except that... I don’t know what kind of threat I’d be to your marriage. I’m nothing.” Back turned, she folded her arms over herself, the fire gilding the fairest strands of her hair. “People forget about me. Nobody would notice me. Nobody’d see me.”
Belisarius let loose a remorseful sigh. He gathered himself beside her by the fire. Stared into it. The words of his house echoing in his mind: reign with fire. An old anachronism from times when the Lords knew the power of magicka; a skill long lost, a knowledge all but forgotten in the long line of men who called themselves Varro. “Perhaps you’re right,’ he admitted. “No one would notice. Many would look through you for being just a stable girl.” He hesitated. Looked down at his feet where his leather boots seemed to him to hold the appendages of some other man. As though he didn’t know himself. “But I would see you. I’d never be able to look past you. And that would be unfair to her, to my parents. To you.” He fingered his sword and bit at his lip and fought back the urge to hug the younger girl. He was about to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway, but the footsteps made him stop.
“No. It wouldn't be fair,” she assented.
He drew his hands up to his neck and lifted the steel chain he always wore. He took it off and held the pendant out to the fire. It was the Varro sigil carved from onyx, a black horse reared on its hindquarters, its mane carved to look like flames. Near the warmth of the hearth, the pendant grew warm to the touch and the eyes of the horse glowed a dim orange. Belisarius reached and took her hand in his. He placed the pendant in her palm, then gently closed her fingers around it.
“For you,” he said. “Keep this--and you will always be a Varro.”
A figure appeared at the far end of the stable. The silhouette of a man bred for nobility: wide shoulders, an upward-tilted chin, piercing eyes, and a mane of hair as blonde and long and silky as the rarest white mane on the rarest white horse. Lord Lucius Proximus Varro. Belisarius turned to face him, but was immediately confused. His father had planned to meet him for a hunt, yet he was wearing his steel plate cuirass with the familial engraving on the chest piece.
“Belisarius,” Lucius said, his voice echoing. Then two more figures appeared by Lord Varro’s side. Armored men. Swords at their belts. Capes of leather hanging from the pauldrons of mighty shoulders. Plumed helmets crowned with hair dipped in crimson. These were no retainers of the House, but legionaries. Soldiers of the Empire.
Belisarius turned and stepped in front of the girl. “Father. I wasn't expecting you. What’s this?”
Lucius looked at his fingernails. “Of course you weren’t. These are your escorts. You will be going off to join the legion.”
Belisarius stood dumbfounded. He just stared at his father. “But the wedding. Aestiva. I thought-”
Lucius shook his head. He never met his son’s gaze. “You thought wrong. There will be no wedding. I have canceled your marriage. You’re a fifth son, you have no need of marriage.” Then, with a flick of his hands, Lucius motioned the two soldiers forward. They began marching down the stable hall, armor plates scraping, mail armor jingling.
Belisarius gave a frightened glance at the girl. The footsteps grew closer. “Take care of Mara for me, will you?” His grin faded, then he turned and tried to put up a fight, but he was no match for steel armor and iron-studded boots.
The struggle was brief, but by the time they were done with him, he lay in a heap on the floor, beaten unconscious, face-down and bloody in the trench of straw and horse manure. The soldiers watched the girl and then exchanged glances with each other, but hearing no further instruction from the Lord at the end of the stable hall, they left her to watch as they dragged Belisarius off and out into the rainy wash.