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Training: Horse

Training: Horse
by Mary Soon Lee

Tsung's duty clear,
but yet he hesitated,
watching from his hilltop vantage
as the boy--King Xau--sat ahorse,
five soldiers mounted to his left,
five to his right.

The reins trembled in the boy's grip:
only the second time Tsung had seen
Xau's nerves show.

Tsung did not wish to be the one
to disillusion him,
but unless he did so
the boy would likely lead them to disaster.

Tsung gave the signal
and the boy started forward,
accompanied by the ten soldiers,
the horses in good formation.
The boy called out, signaled left,
and all the horses swerved
in perfect unison.

Well enough,
but no test of what the boy
would face in war--
Xau insistent that he would command
his cavalry in person:
seventeen years old,
untried in battle.
The kind of courage
that led to the loss of armies.
Or kingdoms.

Tsung gave another signal.
Trumpets blared, drums boomed.
Guards ran toward the horses:
flapping long red banners,
tossing clods of dirt
at the king and his men.

Who rode as if they were alone,
as if they were eleven shadows
of a single faultless form,
the horses turning to Xau's command
almost before Tsung saw the boy
giving the hand signals.

Tsung on the hilltop, stunned,
signaled a third time.

From a stand of trees
a troop of lightly-armored cavalry
charged full at the king.

Xau turned his men to meet them,
galloped headlong at his mock-enemy,
the two lines of horses
thundering toward each other.
Two hundred yards apart,
the cavalry troop stopped, mid-charge,
one man thrown from his horse,
so sudden their halt.
(Unplanned, unbidden, unaccountable.)

For a moment,
Xau and his ten men rode on in perfect order,
toward the baffled, confounded cavalry.

And then Xau called out,
gave the signal to end the exercise.
The boy dismounted clumsily,
sprinted over to the thrown man,
took off the man's armor,
ran his hands along the man's limbs
before helping him to his feet.

Tsung on the hilltop,
clapping and crying,
looking down at his king.

* * * 

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for the past twenty years. In 2014, her poem "Interregnum" won the Rhysling Award for best long poem. "Training: Horse" is part of her poetry sequence "The Sign of the Dragon," which has a rudimentary website at

What advice do you have for other fantasy poets?

Firstly, write what you love. I spent ten years failing to do this before finding my way back to fantasy. Secondly, work on the craft of writing. (There remains a discouraging gap between what I want to do, and what I am able to do.) Thirdly, read widely.