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A Fine Judge of Horseflesh

A Fine Judge of Horseflesh
By Sandi Leibowitz

For now, Vasha was pleased to be at the fair. For now, she didn’t mind the press of so many people—temerai, at that. For now, she didn’t miss her horses or the wide, open Gadjyi lands. The trampled grass under her feet had lost its scent, and the wind had forgotten how to sing. But she wouldn’t stay long, and there were simple pleasures to be found here.

“That’ll be two ymps,” the merchant said. He withheld the steaming boly and outstretched his other hand, scowling.

The woman ahead of her had paid only one ymp for a handheld meat pie, but Vasha didn’t argue. She didn’t want any trouble.

She handed over the two ymps and took her boly. She ignored the stares of the others waiting in line. Rojru, she wanted to mutter, but didn’t dare; most rojru were aware it was a term of contempt for the temerai, anyone not Gadjyiish. Some Gadjyis managed to slip in unnoticed amongst the rojru, but Vasha’s skin was a brilliant indigo (a rare shade considered particularly beautiful by her kind); she stood out. She didn’t often mix with the temerai, but she had some items to buy, two foals to sell, and was on the lookout for a good brood mare, if one was to be had.

The boly was tasty, though not as spicy as Vasha would have liked. Beyond the food sellers a band played, its audience seated on the ground in a semi-circle around them. Vasha sat to listen. The woman beside her scooted away, leaning against her husband for protection. Feshra rojru, Vasha cursed silently. Outwardly, she didn’t react; she kept her eyes on the band: two fiddlers, a drummer and a piper. The temerai smiled and beat their feet to the fast tune. The band was good but their playing lacked the wildness of a Gadjyi romp. Vasha clapped politely with the rest when they were done.

The drummer and one of the fiddlers moved away to sit cross-legged amongst the audience. The piper lay down his instrument, which collapsed in a series of whimpers. To the accompaniment of the sole fiddle he sang of lost love. The tune was sweet, and the singer had a handsome voice. The audience applauded loudly when he was done, but rojru didn’t know true music. The song failed to tug at the heart. When Armun used to sing, or put bow to khejal or lips to flute, a sad song would make grown men weep, and women fall to their knees in grief. Now, that was music. And that was a man. The loss of him was still pungent four years after his death. Vasha rose and moved on.

She bought some bright colored fabrics, thread the colors of her silks and a new bit. Only the woman who sold her the silks overcharged her. Trouble came when she tried to purchase a new knife.

“Your husband should be buying the knives. He should keep you in line,” the seller said

“My husband is dead,” Vasha answered, the words coming hard. “Do temerai women have no use for knives?”

“Gadjyi trash have no business carrying knives,” he said. “No telling what you’d do with it.”

“I’d do with it exactly what you would do with a knife: dress game, repair reins and harnesses. I didn’t ask to buy a sword, just a knife!” She tried to rein in her temper. An angry Gadjyi was all the temerai needed as an excuse for violence. The argument had already attracted a crowd. If a constable came, would he back her up or make things worse? She didn’t want to find out.

She tried a new tactic. Made her voice low, but not sultry—she knew what the rojru thought about the morals of Gadjyi women. She cast her eyes down. “Please, sir,” she said. “I am a widow who needs to earn her own living. I only wish to purchase a good knife to keep my tack in order. I will pay what you ask.”

“Bold as brass, that one,” a woman in a red skirt said, riling the crowd even more. Bold! She’d practically groveled! If only mind-speaking worked on the temerai like it did on horses! Vasha’d be able to gentle them, or at least distract them.

A tall man joined the crowd. He moved with the grace of a Gadjyi, though he wasn’t one. He stood out almost as much as Vasha did. He was slim and dark, with glossy-black hair that fell halfway down his back. She wondered what it might look like untied.

“She didn’t attempt to steal your wares, only make an honest purchase,” the dark man said. His voice was smooth as singing. “Why not let her have it and make your profit?”

“Gadjyis and knives don’t mix. Not in any way I want anything to do with,” the merchant insisted.

The dark man didn’t argue. “How much is the knife?” he asked.

“That’s a good knife, the one she wants. Sharp and strong, but light in the hand. That knife costs 50 ymps.”

The crowd grumbled; everyone knew a knife like that was worth no more than 25. Many left to go about their business. Vasha stayed, debating whether she dared press her case. She still needed a knife.

“I’ll give you 20 ymps,” the dark man said.

“Twenty?” The merchant spluttered. “Forty!” The rest of the crowd dispersed, uninterested in observing an everyday haggle.

“I’ll take the knife for thirty.”

The merchant beamed. Eagerly he handed over the knife to the dark man and received his payment.

The dark man turned to Vasha in a single, swift movement. “Would you care to purchase a knife, madam?” he said quietly.

The merchant scowled but didn’t pursue his objections further.

“Thank you,” Vasha said. She counted out thirty ymps.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you a better bargain.” The dark man smiled. His brown eyes held gentleness and humor and intelligence and something else she couldn’t quite catch. They were flecked with gold, like oak leaves in an autumn pond. Those eyes, and the way he moved, and that hair, and that voice, or some tumbling of these things altogether, quickened her pulse. No man had caught her interest since Armun, and she had never before been attracted to a rojru. No; he wasn’t rojru. And he wasn’t Gadjyi. Some kind of foreigner she’d never encountered before. Was there a word for what he was?

“I appreciate what you did nonetheless.” She smiled.

The dark man looked her over appraisingly, as a man would a woman he found beddable. As no rojru ever looked at a Gadjyi, especially one with indigo skin. Vasha blushed, which she hated to do when among the temerai—it turned her an even richer shade of cobalt. The stranger’s eyes sparked at the change.

“Till we meet again,” he said, and gave her a small, gallant bow.

It almost sounded as if he were certain they would. Or was that merely what Vasha hoped?

* * *

She returned to her wagon to stow away her purchases and fetch the foals. She hadn’t set up in the general camp, crowded with temerai, but in a field more than a mile away. She didn’t mind the walk and her horses appreciated the quiet, the untrammeled grass, and the clear stream.

Just before she caught sight of the wagon, she sent a mind-thread to Meffri. “Hello,” she saluted the mare.

“Welcome, Mistress,” Meffri mind-spoke, nickering an additional greeting. The foals rushed over to greet her.

“Hullo, Unfurred One,” Paero, the young colt, mind-spoke.

Lanalla, a filly slightly older, nipped his nape. “Mistress!” she reminded him.

They nuzzled Vasha’s hands.

“Apple?” Lanalla asked.

“Carrot!” Paero demanded.

“Patience, little ones,” Vasha said aloud.

They arrived at her camp. While she fondled Meffri’s muzzle the foals chased each other in tight circles around the wagon. Vasha ascended the steps, opened the curtains and went inside. Home. She breathed in its scent, gave a brief satisfied look at the tidy cabin with its painted walls and embroidered cushions. She placed her parcels atop the small table built into one wall and went back outside.

“It’s time, Meffri,” she mind-spoke to the mare. These were not Meffri’s foals but the mare had grown used to their company on the journey. The older horse neighed the little ones to her side. They swayed, allowing her to nuzzle and lip their heads and backs in farewell.

“You remember what I told you?” Vasha asked the foals in mind-speech. “About going to new homes. You will probably be separated. You won’t see me or Meffri again, but I will find the best homes for you I can.”

“Adventure!” Paero mind-spoke, kicking up his heels.

“Sad. Worry.” The filly’s thoughts were more clouded.

Vasha projected a calming, sending them images of good food, sweet meadows, kind masters. The foals quieted. She haltered them and led them to the fair.

* * *

The foals sold well, as Vasha had known they would. Gadjyi horses were prized by the temerai, and the bloodlines of these two were impeccable. She had more than enough made up for her purchases and the price-gouging of the knife merchant. She would have gotten higher prices if she’d sold the foals separately at auction, but she arranged for private sales, so she could hand-pick the new owners. They both went to a kindly gentlewoman as pets for her grandchildren; when they grew, they’d make a good team for her carriage. The woman hadn’t minded walking through the muck in her expensive shoes. She’d removed her gloves to pet the foals and talked to them in tones silkier than her skirts. Lanalla and Paero would end up pampered and well loved. Vasha said her silent good-byes to them as the gentlewoman led them away.

Checking out the horses for sale was her next task. Most didn’t merit a second look. The majority were sturdy plow horses. The best of the mares were not worth breeding to a Gadjyi stallion. Vasha came to an unshod, undersized piebald mare. She still had her winter coat, which was wearing off in patches, making her look ragged. Her face had a glazed expression. But there was something there that made Vasha take a second look. She put her hands along the body; the shaggy pelt hid a lithe and powerful skeleton built for speed. Other prospective buyers passed the mare by; only Gadjyiish eyes could detect the horse’s true worth.

Vasha tried to mind-speak with her but it was strangely difficult, as if the mare spoke a different language. She could hear, though. Her ears pricked up and her eyes fastened on Vasha. She nickered quietly. Vasha sensed the mare’s pain. Lost. Alone. Those were the only words Vasha understood. The mare lifted her neck and shivered, the fringe of mane trembling. Home! She stamped her foot and repeated: Home! Vasha sent out a mind-thread of calming, an offer of friendship. She couldn’t tell if the mare understood.

This was the horse Vasha would bid on. If she was wrong about her potential, she could always re-sell her. However, Vasha believed she could rehabilitate her. She moved on, not commenting; she didn’t want the man selling the piebald to sense her eagerness. Temerai respected Gadjyis for one thing only: their knowledge of horses. If they suspected a Gadjyi’s interest in a horse, it would spike the bidding. She paused before several other animals, chatting with the sellers.

She paused to admire a bay gelding.

“Hmm,” she said, unaware she’d made the sound. She moved her hands to his muzzle and spoke aloud, not just in mind-speak, “Aren’t you a pretty fellow?”

“You’re a fine judge of horseflesh,” someone said. Vasha turned from the horse to the speaker. It was the dark man.

“I don’t need a male, but I can’t resist”— she almost said a handsome face—“looking.”

The dark man smiled. He joined her in her perusal of the stock, as if they were friends who had temporarily parted and now came together as planned. They shared assessments of the different beasts. The tall man was Gadjyi-like in his appraisals, with a sharp eye for build, and a keen appreciation for beauty in mane and coloration. The farther they walked, the more the space between them shrank.

“My name is Phrenn,” he said at last.

“That’s not a tem—I mean a Breevish name,” Vasha observed. Breeve was the temerai name for the country they were in. There were other temerai, who named their parts of the land other things, but to a Gadjyi they were all temerai.

“No, I’m from the north. We seldom stray this far south. And what may I call you?”

When he repeated her name, Vasha could have sworn she heard the wind brushing the grass as though she galloped through the wild lands.

In moments they stood very close, not as close as husband and wife but much closer than strangers. Vasha found herself laughing at Phrenn’s little jokes. She liked the way his eyes gleamed when something pleased him—a good horse, a bit of humor, or herself.

A latecomer led in a mare and her colt and tied them to a free spot at the rail. When the colt at the next spot down trotted over to investigate, the new one reared and pawed the air in challenge.

“Brave stallion!” Phrenn tipped his head back and laughed aloud. Stray hairs loosed from their tie and fell across his face. Armun had had unruly hair like that, a mane she’d loved to pull her fingers through.

They reached the gate. Vasha had seen all the horses. She had no excuse to linger in the corral. She toyed with the notion of staying in Phrenn’s company—he had joined her before examining the first several horses—but the temerai sellers would no doubt make rude comments about her looking for something other than a horse.

“I should go,” she said. “They’ll start the auction soon and I want to get a good place in front.”

“Allow me to buy you a cup of rosewater first,” he said. There was only fresh water available for livestock; one needed to purchase beverages to quench one’s thirst—ale or wine or ridiculously flavored drinks. Ordinarily Vasha resented the waste of good coin on such a frill but she was pleased to accept Phrenn’s invitation.

They sat in the shade of a generous oak and drank. For a while they talked, for a while they were silent.

“I’d best go back to the corral before the bidding starts,” Phrenn said. He stood. He offered to help her up. Ordinarily Vasha would object; no Gadjyi woman needed help to stand, even the very old. She took his hands and rose.

They didn’t relinquish each other for quite some time. Phrenn leaned down and for a moment it seemed that he was going to kiss her. Vasha almost met his lips with her own. Almost.

“I hope the bidding goes your way.” He tipped an imaginary cap and returned to the corral.

Maybe when the auction was over, she would seek him out. Maybe, she thought, he would seek her. Did it have to matter that Phrenn wasn’t a Gadjyi? She felt more alive than she had in four years.

Vasha stationed herself at the railing before the horse auctions started, down in front, but not close enough to the auctioneer to cause the temerai to complain. As the area got crowded, there remained a halo of space around her, the only Gadjyi present.

The bidding began. Work horses first, then those suitable for pulling rigs. The bay gelding sold for a good price.

Something pricked at the edges of her awareness. She recognized the scent—sweet hay and earth and musk. Phrenn.

He pushed his way forward to stand beside her.

“Ah, there’s our roan,” he said, as the second decent horse was paraded for the crowd.

It was pleasant observing the horses with him a second time, commenting for the first time on the ones they’d viewed separately.

“Not enough muscle,” Vasha remarked as a pretty cream-colored gelding was brought out.

Phrenn nodded.

At last the piebald mare was led to the block. Vasha thought about sending her a mind-thread to suggest looking lethargic, but there was little need for that. Tail low, ears drooping, the mare showed poorly.

“Do I hear 70 droms? Anyone? Sixty? Come on, folks, let’s get the bidding started at sixty—a bargain, even for a small, unshod mare. She’d be safe for little ones—suitable for some enterprising soul to make a few droms every day selling rides at fairs.”

No one bid. Vasha finally lifted her hand. “Sixty.”

“Seventy,” Phrenn called out beside her. He took her elbow, drew her close. “I’d appreciate if you would buy a different animal. I want that mare.”

“So do I.”

“Please, Vasha. Don’t bid against me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” she said. “I came to the fair today on the lookout for a brood mare, and she’s the only one worth bidding on. I need her.”

“Eighty,” a portly workman bid. He seemed spurred on by the interest of the foreigner and the Gadjyi.

“You don’t understand,” Phrenn whispered urgently. “She belongs to me.”

“You owned an unshod horse?” Vasha frowned in confusion.

Phrenn didn’t answer.

“Why didn’t you confront the thief earlier and demand her return? Or call for a constable?” His story made no sense. Vasha felt sick. Had she let her attraction cloud her judgment?

“I couldn’t.” He shrugged. “She’s mine, all the same.”

“But anyone could claim the horse was stolen from them. You could be saying that just to bid her out from under me!” As soon as she said it, she knew it was true.

“Please. I must have that horse.”

“Do you think because I’m Gadjyiish you can order me around? Or is it simply that a woman must yield to a man’s demands?” She moved through the crowd away from him, closer to the auctioneer.

“Ninety,” she bid.

“A hundred,” Phrenn countered from behind.

The workman shook his head and dropped out. But Vasha and Phrenn kept on. She bid 140 droms.

“I can add this silver ring,” he said, drawing it from an inside pocket. “It’s worth at least 50 droms. With the 140, that’s all I have. I give everything I have for the mare.” He said that last part loudly; for my benefit, thought Vasha. That only angered her more.

“I’ll give you 10 droms’ credit for it,” the auctioneer said. “You’re at 150.”

Vasha paused. Auctioneers seldom took goods in lieu of cash; when they did, they always offered a low price. Even so, Phrenn was being grossly cheated. Why would he give everything he had for that mare? Vasha wouldn’t risk much more on such a dubious animal. If he wants her so badly, he can have her.

But the thought of him expecting her to give in because he was so sure of her attraction to him enraged her. Perhaps he’d spent time with her in the first place in order to discover the best horse for sale. Maybe if there’d been six Gadjyiish women there, he’d have wooed all six. She was no rojru scarecrow to be pushed around by some man who thought himself irresistible.

“One-sixty,” she bid.

“Going, going, gone!” the auctioneer called. “Sold to the Gadjyi woman.” He handed off the mare to his assistant. Vasha went over to pay, not looking back at the crowd. She didn’t want to see Phrenn again. She took the halter and walked the mare straight off the fairgrounds to her camp. She didn’t ride her; it would require time to establish a trusting relationship before she tried that.

* * *

The mare lagged the whole way. They hadn’t gone far before she stopped completely, refusing to budge no matter how much her new owner clicked and coaxed.

“I’m beginning to be sorry I bought you,” Vasha said. “You’re more mule than horse.” She tugged the halter. The piebald’s ears flattened. “Captor,” the mare sent out in mind-speech.

“Food. Stream. Not far,” Vasha responded. The piebald moved forward, tail swishing in silent rebellion.

When they reached the camp, Meffri neighed a friendly greeting to the newcomer. The piebald flared her nostrils in response. Vasha tied her to the rear of the wagon. She climbed the steps, picked up the reins, clicked to Meffri and set off on the road. The sooner they got away from the fairgrounds and temerai lands, the better. She sent out a becalming to the horses, but it didn’t even work on Meffri; her own mood apparently bled through and ruined it. She let the mares get out some of their tension in a sprightly trot.

Hours later, they were far from fair or town. The nearest village was a blur of tiny lights across the grasslands. Vasha set up camp off-road, where there were trees to give them cover, and a stream where the horses could drink. She tried to reach the piebald, but the horse’s mind was closed.

“When we’re better friends, I’ll figure out a name for you,” Vasha told her. She made shushing noises and sweet talk, and offered apple bribes, all the ordinary tricks she knew to woo an ill-tempered horse. When she attempted to caress her, the piebald curled her lips and stamped a rear leg. Vasha let her be.

Meffri was a friendlier companion. She mindspoke of missing the little ones, and her concerns about the stranger. “Angry one,” she told her mistress. “Keep clear of her hooves.” Vasha hugged the mare and sank her face into her neck. She rewarded faithful Meffri with an apple.

She ate a small meal of cheese, bread and olives. It suddenly felt odd to eat alone. Vasha went early to bed, eager to put this confusing day behind her. She kept the shutters and curtains open to the night. The waxing gibbous moon flooded the cabin with radiance. She’d always loved moonlight; it made her sleep easily and gave her good dreams. But she was angry at herself, and at Phrenn, and at the piebald that had come between them and now seemed no prize at all. When she slept, even her dreams were angry.

* * *

Something woke her. It was Meffri mind-calling, “Danger, Mistress!”

Vasha leapt from her bed, thrusting the new knife into her scabbard and buckling it on. She grabbed her bow and quiver and flew down the steps to the ground. She heard and saw no one. Meffri was rearing up, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the dark.

“Zemm, zoli, zemm,” Vasha said—“softly, friend, softly.” The horse stopped rearing but remained agitated.

Vasha projected a calming. “You’re not hurt and I’m not hurt. I’m in charge now. We’ll be safe.” She grabbed Meffri’s halter and moved to caress her muzzle. Someone had wrapped a sash around it so she wouldn’t make a sound. That meant the intruder wasn’t Gadjyiish; temerai didn’t know about mind-speaking. Vasha untied it.

She rushed to the rear of the cart, where the new mare had been tied. The lead line dangled, ends frayed. Several places had been worked on—by horse teeth. How had the mare managed her own escape? She’d never heard of a horse doing such a thing. And why would someone go to the trouble of stealing the piebald, yet leave Meffri behind? Meffri was a far superior horse.

Who else but Phrenn would steal the piebald? Vasha seethed. He was nothing but a horse-thief—guilty of the very crime the rojru always accused the Gadjyi of commiting. But this was worse than theft. This was betrayal.

She studied the ground where the piebald had been tied. The tracks of a strange horse appeared from the southeast. The tracks of a man appeared. So, he’d come, dismounted, untied the mare—no, wait, the mare had untied herself. And waited for him? That made no sense. At any rate, Phrenn had roped the piebald and absconded with her to his homeland—the tracks of both horses led north.

No Gadjyi would let some rojru steal her horse. Vasha untied Meffri and mounted bareback.

“Follow the mare and her thief!” she commanded in mind-speech. “Hup!” she cried, thighs squeezing Meffri’s flanks. For the past sevennight the horse had been tethered and still, or pulling a cart, mostly at a pace to suit foals, but she was a Gadjyi horse, born and bred for speed. She snorted her eagerness and shot off.

For more than two miles they went full gallop. The road was winding—the thief still kept to the road—over gentle hills and down, so Vasha had yet to spot her quarry. It was a glorious night, with the almost-full moon turning the tassels of the grass silver. Vasha breathed more fully than she had in a sevennight. Her blood raced. She rejoiced in the wind’s fingers in her hair.

They climbed the next rise. Either she’d catch up with Phrenn soon or she’d have to stop; Meffri could take no more.

They topped the rise. Below stood the piebald, drenched in sweat. Phrenn stood beside her. Where was his mount, beyond the next hill? He panted, clutching his hands to his side as if he had a stitch. Clearly he was an inferior horseman; even a rojru shouldn’t be that winded from the ride. Legs gripping Miffri’s flanks, Vasha notched an arrow and aimed. Slowly they descended the hill. They were almost on a level with him before the piebald noticed them and alerted Phrenn with a huff.

“Have done, Vasha.” He held his hands out palms forward in a stopping gesture.

“Steady,” she mind-told Meffri. The mare held completely still for her. “You are an easy mark from here, Phrenn. I don’t even need to dismount.”

“You have to dismount to get the mare. She will not go to you willingly.” The piebald walked uphill towards Vasha, lips curled, pawing the ground with a forefoot.

Vasha spoke a calming to the piebald, hoping it would work. She commanded Meffri to descend the rest of the way, clicking comfortingly to the piebald.

“Zemm, zoli, zemm,” she said aloud. Vasha dismounted, keeping the arrow trained on Phrenn’s heart. She slid off easily, never losing balance or focus.

“You’ll have to let go of the bow to grab the lead. That’s if Tamra stays meek and mild as she is now and you don’t need two hands.” His voice lacked the strain one would expect from a man with an arrow aimed at his heart. He softened it till it resembled the tone she’d used to try to calm the piebald. “Vasha, I’m not your enemy. You know you have no desire to shoot me.”

She was sure he chose the word desire on purpose. She’d made her desire for him as obvious as a filly’s who scented her favorite stallion.

“Filthy rojru thief!” she spat. He’d stolen more than a horse. He’d taken her heart—almost. And her pride.

“Zemm, zoli, zemm,” he said soothingly. Mocking her!

She sidestepped closer to the mare. Phrenn lunged at her, knocking the arrow to the ground. Before Vasha could even react, he unsheathed the knife at her belt and snatched it away. She gasped, imagining him stabbing her with it—the sharp new knife he’d helped her buy.

But he stepped away.

She scooped up the arrow and aimed again. “That was foolish. You’ll have to get close to stab me—my arrow will kill you first.”

Instead of attacking, he turned his back on her and ran to the mare. Was he going to kill it?

“No!” Vasha cried.

She almost loosed the arrow. But Phrenn didn’t stab the mare; he was cutting the halter. Why not just unbuckle it? Vasha was too stunned to shoot, too stunned to do anything.

The knife worked the halter loose; the mare arched her neck so its remains slid off. She shook her mane violently. A petite woman stood in the piebald’s place. Vasha stared, mouth agape.

The woman was young, but her hair was white as an old woman’s—no, the same creamy white as the piebald’s mane. What did it mean? The woman snarled, kicking the halter away from her.

Phrenn leapt to the woman’s side and embraced her. Weeping, she held him close. Even with so many strange occurrences, Vasha felt a stab of jealousy. She lowered her weapon.

“I knew you’d come,” the woman said. “Forgive me for my recklessness!”

“Hush, Tamra. All is well now.” Finally, Phrenn released the woman. He looked up at Vasha. “You see now, why I had to have her. She belongs to me.”

“I don’t understand.” Vasha busied herself returning the arrow to her quiver, and slung the bow across her back.

“Come with me,” Phrenn said. He extended a hand to Vasha. “Let me explain.”

She didn’t take it. But she followed him.

“Stay here,” he told the white-haired woman. She snorted, in a way part human and far more equine, and darted a hostile look Vasha’s way. “This is Tamra.”

Vasha only nodded. What did you say to a magical horse-woman? Especially one that hated you?

Phrenn took her back up the rise she’d just ridden down. He faced in the direction they’d come from. “What kind of tracks do you see?”

She squinted. Even from here a Gadjyi could read the story written in the dirt. She pointed. “Those belong to Meffri. They are deep, because she carries my weight. The small ones belong to the piebald. Those belong to your horse.—Wait. There’s no sign that your horse is carrying any weight but its own.”

“Now look back the other way, to where you just found me.”

Vasha looked down to where the sullen Tamra waited. There were her small footprints taking over from where the hoofprints of the piebald vanished. There were Phrenn’s bootprints. The ground showed where Vasha had dismounted from Meffri. But there was no sign of Phrenn’s horse leaving the area—its hoofprints simply disappeared.

“But…What are you?” she said quietly.

“We are W’herrin. Sometimes we take human form, mostly equine, as our whim dictates. Tamra strayed too far south and got captured by human traders. I had to get her back.”

“Why didn’t she simply change herself back into a woman?”

“Because of the halter. If in horse-shape we wear anything of human crafting for longer than the span of a moon’s courses, we cannot return to human form. She would have remained a horse for the rest of her life—not a free horse, but a captive cut off from her own kind.”

“Why didn’t you just unstrap the halter?”

“Even in human form we can’t remove halter or saddle or other human trappings from any W’herrin. We need iron to cut another of our kind free. I was able to bite the rope that attached Tamra to the wagon so she could get away but I couldn’t get the halter off till I got a knife. I knew eventually there’d be an opportunity to find one.”

“And so you, too…?”

“I too.”

Vasha looked into his eyes and understood the thing she’d been unable to name before. They were not Gadjyiish eyes nor temerish; they were not even truly human. It was the horse in his nature that she’d seen there. She wondered if that was the cause of her attraction to him.

“Where do your people—your race—come from?”

“No one knows how we began. Most of us descend from W’herrins for untold generations. But some are newly made: horses that wish to take on human form, humans that long to be horses—mostly those. It takes little to change: the sharing of blood between W’herrin and initiate. Two small cuts from your knife would suffice.” He returned the knife to her now. “Plus the initiate’s will to change—the transformation can’t be forced.

“Let me ask you something, Vasha. Above all things you love horses. I know how well you ride—you almost overtook us! Tell me that you don’t exalt in the wildlands, wind tangling your hair, the taste of speed. Wouldn’t you prefer your own legs pounding the earth, moving so fast you’re almost flying?” Phrenn lowered his voice to a caress of sound. “Wouldn’t you like to become one of us? Join our band. Join me.”

“What about Tamra?”

“I’m a stallion. There is room for many mares in my band.” He stepped closer to her, eyes finding hers. He stroked her cheek with a gentle hand. “And room for many women in my heart.”

Vasha almost surrendered to that simple touch. She closed her eyes—the sight of him would sway her too much. In her mind’s eye she saw herself as horse, guessed what it was like to soar like the wind’s daughter. She opened her eyes and her heart shuddered with want. Gadjyis never stole horses as the rojru claimed, but they had been known to seduce them—mindspeak them into running away. Vasha wondered for a moment if that was how the W’herrin increased their own herds. Perhaps Phrenn, too, was looking for a good brood mare.

But she brushed this thought aside. His desire for her was as real as hers for him. She untied the ribbon that bound his hair. He smiled, and shook the black locks loose in a gesture that was pure horse. She allowed herself to caress them, as she’d longed to do all day. His hair was softer than any horse’s mane, softer than the silks she’d purchased at the fair. She reached up and kissed him. He drew her towards him, nuzzled her neck and kissed her again. She had kissed no man since Armun. She withdrew.

“No,” she answered.

His face looked hurt and confused.

“You offer me something tempting. What Gadjyi could resist the chance to become a horse? And you yourself are difficult to resist. But this too-human heart doesn’t wish to share its love. One heart, one love. That’s what I want, what I need. I will stay a human and a Gadjyi. But I have been glad to know you, Phrenn. I will think of you often.”

“You are certain?” he asked. The hurt had deepened. His eyes seemed more black than brown, and the gold in them faded.

She nodded.

“I’ve never seen a blue horse.” He smiled ruefully. “I can only imagine how beautiful a W’herrin you would have made.”

He shook his head in an equine way, then more violently. Before her stood a stallion dark as moonless night, his mane a torrent of black down his back. Sleek and muscular, he was like something from the ancient Gadjyiish songs, the most magnificent horse Vasha had ever seen. He whinnied in Tamra’s direction. A whinny answered. The stallion cantered down the hill to join her. The piebald kicked up her heels, spirited and joyful in a way Vasha had never seen her. She watched the two horses disappear into the north country before she whistled Meffri to her side.

* * *

Sandi Leibowitz lives in a raven’s wood next door to bogles in New York City. After a variety of careers and jobs (including ghostwriting for a monsignor and working behind one of the caribou dioramas at the Museum of Natural History), she is now an elementary-school librarian, which enables her to hook kids on reading, tell stories, and occasionally use puppets and funny voices. She also sings classical and early music and plays recorders and other non-orchestral instruments.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

I think fantasy is attractive as a genre, first, because it enables the reader and the writer to experience worlds and beasts we can’t visit or meet anywhere but in our imagination. Sometimes the worlds are intensely beautiful, sometimes intensely horrifying, and often both. But seldom are they dull. Second, much of fantasy provides us with life lived to the utmost, the largest things at stake—whether the interior life or the safety of a realm or multiverse.