Friday, 12 November 2010

Great Horse Stories - Aura's Story by Katherine Roberts

AURA
Dapple grey mare
Rider: Demetrius


My name’s Aura, and everyone notices me. It's a grey thing. I’ve carried queens and princes. I even once almost carried Prince Alexander, only Bucephalas got there first. Just as well, really. Can you honestly see the Persian army running away from me? I don’t even nip people from behind when I’m in season, like some mares I know… mentioning no names, Harpinna! I believe in doing my best for every rider, prince or slave. So the night before our big battle against the Persian army, when the moon went out and all the other horses were scared, I stood quietly for the dark-skinned man who fumbled with my bridle. His hands trembled as he untied me. I could smell the fear in his sweat. “Please,” he kept sobbing. “Please don’t buck me off, little mare.”

He obviously didn’t know me very well. I must admit I was a little surprised when he led me out of the horse lines and scrambled on my bare back. But we horses can see well enough in the dark, even without a moon, so I carried him safely between the stakes Alexander had ordered planted around our camp to keep the Persians out. As we passed between them, Bucephalas neighed after me from the stallion lines. But I had not come into season, so I didn’t go to him. Then the moon came back out, and everyone started running and shouting. My rider twisted his hands in my mane and dug his heels into my ribs. His fear smell sharpened as if we were going into battle and I knew he wanted me to gallop. The plain of Gaugamela stretched smooth and silver before me, so I did.

Soon we came to another camp, much bigger than ours with a proper fence around it and many nervous guards. The gate opened when they saw us approaching. Thousands of Persian horses, fidgety because of what had happened to the moon, neighed to me. Their humans were running about in a panic, too, wailing about demons. I thought they would spear my rider. But then they recognized him and dragged him off to a big pavilion, leaving me standing in the middle of a strange herd. Fortunately, the grey thing worked again. Before the other horses could bite me, a groom caught my rein and led me to a water trough. “Well, aren’t you a pretty one?” he said as I drank. “We’ll be able to breed from you, once we’ve sent young Alexander and his barbarian friends packing. Maybe you’ll give us a white foal to replace our sacred horse of the sun we lost at Issus.” And the next thing I knew I was tethered firmly to King Darius’ royal horse line.

I wouldn’t have minded a foal, though Bucephalas had already made it clear he wanted to be its father. So I ate the hay the groom gave me and dozed, hoping someone would take me back in the morning. When the Persian king emerged from his pavilion, however, everyone started wailing again. It seemed their queen had died in Alexander’s camp, which was why her slave had stolen me to bring the news. The Persians wept all day, and that night their priests held prayers to their god with much smoke and fire. The next morning, the king got into his chariot, his men mounted their thousands of horses, and the whole huge herd went out on to the plain to fight Alexander.

Scenting my friends on the hot, dry wind and hearing their faint screams and whinnies, I danced about at the end of my tether. The man who had stolen me came to stroke my sweaty neck. “Shh, little mare,” he said. “It’ll be all right. No one will hurt you, I promise.” But he was only a slave so he could not keep his promise.

Late that afternoon, men and horses started limping back to camp covered in dust and blood. Then a chariot came out of the shimmering heat, surrounded by dusty, blood-splattered riders. It swerved to a halt, and a man staggered out the back and dragged off his turban. I didn’t recognize him at first, but everyone rushed up to offer him wine and food and fresh robes, so I knew it must be the Persian king. He stared around his camp in a daze. Then he saw me and pointed. The grey thing again.

The slave put a bridle and cloth on me. I thought he was going to take me back to my herd at last. But he crouched on all fours so the king could step from his back on to mine. King Darius wrenched my head round to the east, and the strange horses pressed close on all sides. The sun was going down over the plain behind us, turning the dust red. When I tried to see if my friends were coming, my rider held out his hand for a whip and brought it down hard across my quarters.

No one had ever whipped me before, and it hurt. So I sprang half out of my skin, and the other horses – some of them a bit lame – had a job to keep up. We galloped flat out, our shadows stretching long in front of us. The Persian king was not a good rider. He kept jerking at my mouth when I missed a stride, and if I slowed down to catch my breath he used the whip instead of his heels and voice like Demetrius would have done. I suppose I could have thrown him off during that first mad charge. But I’ve never thrown a rider in my life, the other horses jostled me, and soon I needed all my energy just to keep galloping.

Just when I thought I’d drop dead in mid-gallop, a town loomed ahead, ghostly in the moonlight. We cantered through an arch into a courtyard, our hooves striking sparks in the dark. There was a fountain in the middle and the sweet smell of water. Thankfully, the king slid off me and stepped on the back of another slave to mount another horse. Fresh horses were brought for his men, and then they all clattered off again into the night. I rested my chin on the fountain, too tired even to drink. Eventually a groom came to take my reins. He led me into a dirty stable, took off my bridle and cloth, threw me an armful of hay and left me in the dark. I was glad he didn’t try to groom me, because I hurt all over. I lay down on my side in the stale dung and closed my eyes.

That could have been the end of my story. But as I lay there, exhausted, the Persian god appeared in a blaze of white light. He stroked me, and my pains eased. "You did well, little mare," he said. "You will be rewarded." And he sent me a lovely dream in which Bucephalas and I galloped in a green pasture, where we made a foal together. I thought I had died and gone to paradise. Then I heard Bucephalas calling to me in his big voice… AURA! AURA! AURA!… and woke up.

I lifted my head to see sun streaming through the stable doors. Every muscle had gone stiff. My leg had swollen like a pillar. But it was Bucephalas! And I could smell more of my friends in the courtyard. Hades’ rider Iolaus stamped down the passage, muttering to himself. He frowned at me, then put a halter on me and led me out into the sunshine. Bucephalas pricked his ears and whinnied in sympathy. My rider Demetrius came running to hug me. “Oh, my poor mare! What have those nasty Persians done to you?” He touched my whip cuts, and I couldn’t help a snort of pain.

A lot of humans and horses got hurt in that battle. But the Persian god kept his promise. When Alexander and the others left, Bucephalas and I got to stay behind in the stables at Gaugamela for a holiday. It wasn’t quite the green pasture of my dream, but it was peaceful and sunny and the food was good. And later, after I’d come into season, we made a foal together on that dusty plain... but that’s another story!

Got a story or poem about one of the horses in Bucephalas’ herd? Send it to the unicorn (see this post for details).

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