Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Great Horse Stories - Zephyr's Story


ZEPHYR
dun mare
Rider: Philotas

Philotas was the one who named me Zephyr. Before that, I was just “the dun mare”. I don’t have pretty dapples like Aura, and I’m not a mare-who-thinks-she’s-a-stallion like Harpinna. I’m the sort of mare nobody notices. Maybe that’s why Bucephalas never made a foal with me?

Philotas grumbles it’s the same for him. “Nobody notices how bravely I fight,” he told me one day at the start of the war with Persia, back when we were still part of Alexander’s special Guard. “I’m just 'General Parmenio’s son'... and I don't think Alexander likes me.” I whinnied in sympathy, because we all knew Alexander didn’t like old Parmenio very much. That’s probably why he threw me and Philotas out of the Guard as soon as he could get away with it and gave us some Greek cavalry to command, whose horses wouldn’t mind being bossed about by a dun mare.

Philotas was pretty pleased with his promotion at first. But he soon worked out we were always ordered to fight the most dangerous parts of the battle, and being in charge of a herd of Greeks is no substitute for being in terror of your life every time we meet the enemy, believe me. “He’s trying to get us killed, Zephyr,” he grumbled. “This whole stupid war is ridiculous. King Darius is dead! We’ve won. We should all have gone home to our families long ago, instead of riding further east in search of more battles… He’s got to be stopped!”

It might have been all right if he’d stopped there. But he kept on grumbling behind Alexander’s back, riding me out in the dark to meet equally grumpy men in cloaks, who then plotted and whispered together for hours, while anyone who saw me waiting for him in the shadows soon forgot they had seen me because I’m only “the dun mare”.

We were camping at a place called Lake Seistan when Alexander found out about all the grumbling. It’s miles and miles from home, and most of us had given up ever seeing Macedonia again – except for Philotas, who pulled my ears and promised me: “Not long now, my sweet Zephyr, not long now.”

I didn’t quite know what he meant by that. Then one night Alexander’s men burst into Philotas’ tent and dragged my poor rider out of his bed. I heard him screaming from the horse lines. The screams went on and on, disturbing us horses, but by morning they had stopped and a strange silence settled over the camp. A lot of other horses’ riders got arrested, too, and shortly afterwards a groom came down to the horse line to shave off my mane. “Sorry, little dun mare,” he said as my curls fell unnoticed into the mud. “Don’t worry, I'm sure you’ll get a new rider soon.”

I got one of the Greeks, whose horse had gone lame in our last battle. He rode me in a big parade that Alexander had ordered. It was a relief, really. We had all been penned up in the camp for days, unable to get out past the double guard on the gates, and we were itching for a good gallop. A parade is mostly trotting, but it’s better than standing in the horse lines. Any rate, after we’d bucked and kicked up our heels for a bit, we formed our battle lines and waited for Alexander and Bucephalas to come and order us around as usual.

Bucephalas came out squealing, made himself huge, and gave us all flat ears. I kept my head down and hoped he wouldn’t notice me – there are some advantages to being “the dun mare”. Without Philotas on my back, I don’t think even Alexander recognized me.

For a long time nothing much happened. Then, as we fidgeted and gave each other sly nips and kicks, three camels came racing in from the west and barged straight through our lines, setting us all off bucking and kicking again. The leading jockey threw a blood-stained sack at Alexander, and my rider swore and drew his sword, thinking it was a Persian assassin. But Bucephalas went up on his hind legs to avoid it, and Alexander laughed, the plumes of his helmet flying against the sky. “See!” he yelled in his high voice, pointing his sword at the sack, which had spilled its contents under Bucephalas’ hooves. “That’s what’ll happen to any of you who dare plot against me in future!”

It was a man’s head, covered in blood and flies, and it STANK. It’s hot in Persia, and the camels had been on the road three days bringing their burden from Ecbatana, where we’d left Philotas' father General Parmenio to rest his old bones. I suppose his bones are still there, except for his skull, because that was in the head rolling before us. When the flies cleared off, my new rider whispered, “Oh Zeus, he’s killed poor old Parmenio, too!” and went very still. I could feel him trembling with terror.

After that there was no more talk of going home, and the men kept their grumbling for their horses’ ears alone. I never saw Philotas again, and soon became “the dun mare” as before, because nobody could remember what he’d called me.

I’m not too upset. Getting noticed by Alexander these days can be a dangerous business, and Zephyr was far too posh a name for a mare like me, anyway. Better to be ignored and alive than famous and dead, that’s what I say!

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