Our Dead Drink the Sea [1x1]


Stoneborn Cannibal

“As I imagine many fathers are of their daughters.” I had known plenty of girls back home, both worthy candidates for marriage and lowborn, and the majority were well-protected just the same. Still, Gradlon knew me. I was not after his only child’s virtue nr would I ever hurt her. If I thought she would be in any danger with me I wouldn’t invite her to watch me ride or meet Falcon.

The ocean sends another biting wind up to the balcony, enough to make me shiver. I look behind us into the great hall where the crowd had died down some. It must be growing later. Tomorrow will be a dangerous one and I will need a good night of sleep to be on strong guard. Falcon has won my trust, but he is the only aughisky I may ever turn my back on.

I turn my attention back to the princess, giving another respectful bow. “I believe it’s time I retire for the night your highness. Enjoy the rest of yours; gods willing we will meet again soon.” With that, I make my way back inside, weaving through the dwindling guests through the castle back up to my guest chambers.

There is a small fire lit in the room, warming my chilly skin as I undress and climb into bed. I let my eyes close, listening for the sea through the window I left open purposely. She whispers to me the gentle shhhhhh, shhhhhh I have fallen asleep to every night since I was a child. My last thoughts are of Falcon; I wonder if he listens as I do for the song we love so dearly.


Resident Fruit Tree
“I suppose so.” I can hardly argue with a man that does not know what it is like to be shut away, always treated with reverence and overbearing protectiveness as though I can’t look out for myself.
„Good night Lord Callaghan.“ I watch him disappear into the thinning crowd inside. Despite the cold biting at my skin even through the layers of my gown, I stay outside for a moment longer, staring out over the rushing waves and pondering this encounter. I can come to no truly graspable conclusion, but find myself looking forward to seeing the intriguing Lord Callaghan again, especially if he really can make good on his promise of letting me close to his water horse.

I renter the great hall but pause once I have closed the glass doors behind me, patting at my hair and pulling at my skirts. I must look utterly windswept and who knows how people might misunderstand my dishevelled appearance. I wouldn’t want anyone to get a false impression of Callaghan or myself. Thankfully I am able to make my way around the outskirts of the gathering to the side door where my faithful Laila is still waiting. With a few deft movements, she has me presentable again and I re-join the party.

Many people have retired, especially the older nobles, and quite a few of those left are well into their cups. I recognise a few riders among their number and frown slightly, thinking it probably not the best idea for them to indulge too much. They must deal with some of the most dangerous predators in our part of the world come tomorrow. I know I would not want my senses dulled if it were me.
On that note, I should probably not stay too much longer myself. I am not used to staying awake long into the evenings. Bidding farewell to my last dance partners, I drop by my father’s throne to wish him a good night and make my way out of the great hall. With Laila and my guard trailing me, I make it back to my own chambers.
As soon as the door closes behind us Laila transforms from meek maid to devious gossip.

“So much for escaping the first chance you got eh my Lady.” Her eyes glint mischievously as she shepherds me towards the stool in front of the vanity to undo my hair.

“Oh fine.” I plop down on the stool and pick up a warm, wet cloth to get rid of my make-up. “It wasn’t as bad as I expected, at least once I was away from father.”

“As far as I could tell you were having quite a lot of fun, although I did lose sight of you for a while.”

“I told you before; I took a little break out on the balcony.” I don't mention meeting Callaghan, just as I left out that detail earlier. I don’t need Laila’s knowing looks to get even worse. I will never understand how servants know just about everything that goes on in this huge castle.

“As you say my Lady.”

By now my hair is free of its pins and I relax under the feel of the brush gently teasing out any tangles, realising how tired I actually am. To save time I take charge of the left side of my hair while Laila braids the right side. In the end her braid is neater and tighter than mine, but it only needs to hold while I sleep, so neatness doesn’t really matter. The gold braids reach past my waist, stark against the dark colour of the gown I still wear. My mother’s voice sounds in my memory, accompanied by my father’s laughter, “Neora will never need precious metals, she has her very own crown of gold right here.”

I am glad when Laila has undone enough laces and buttons so that I can wriggle out of the gown and the memories it suddenly brought up. In a plain nightgown I can curl up in my bed and try not to think about anything. It is easier than I expected and I am already half asleep as Laila extinguishes the lamp and retreats to her own room just off of mine.


Stoneborn Cannibal

The dawn is a freezing, damp thing that struggles to light my room through the haze of thick gray clouds. I set to dressing myself today, grateful to after being hovered over last night. It will have to be heavier articles today for not only protection against the elements but also any aughisky with bright ideas. I choose a wool doublet topped by a brown tunic and leather jerkin tied by my normal sword belt. My breeches today are wool lined as well, tucked under my riding boots. Finally, I add a wide scarf that covers my neck then secure a thick brown cloak lined with animal furs round me before heading straight to check on Falcon.

He smells me (or perhaps it’s his breakfast of freshly butchered mutton?) before he sees me and lets out a scream. I watch him turn circles in his stall, his tail swishing, nostrils flaring. It takes several minutes for him to settle and only then do I open the heavy wooden door, pouring the fine cuts of raw meat into his feed bin. Once he is finished eating, we proceed with his normal care routine. He is anxious, constantly shifting his weight or looking towards the ocean. He knows what today is.

But he is not for sale and I know better than to take him down on the beach until night returns. Instead, I wander down alone, lifting the scarf up over my nose as my boots sink into sand. The weather has not improved but so far any rain has held off. It is just the bone-chilling wind and salty wet air.

On the beach men have gathered by the hundreds, maybe thousands. They are all yelling to be heard above one another, scrambling about trying to mount water horses or otherwise hold them as still as possible. I recognize faces from previous years both riders as well as dealers, everyone dressed in heavy cloaks and hats and scarves. The aughisky scream a terrible chorus with the human voices. It is nothing except complete chaos.

I find a place by a large rock that juts from the sand, a good vantage point to observe many happenings at once. My eyes are interested in a dealer with a particularly wild aughisky. She is a gorgeous animal, bay appaloosa mare with a blanket of leopard spots and one blue eye. But it fights hard, lashing out multiple times with teeth and hoof.

Several riders approach, try to get close to her. She snaps at each, even taking a chunk from one man’s arm who rushes away trying to stop the gushing blood. Then, of all people, I see William Grady make his way over. He is brave, but stupid. The mare rears and tries to strike him with her hooves. He dodges, charges ahead and gets his hands around her bridle. The mare screams as she rears up. I can see it all unfold so slowly then. William’s hands slip and he falls off balance while the mare gets all four feet back on the beach. She screams, rushing for him with a mouthful of sharp teeth.

He’s saved by the dealer who snatches her reins just before her teeth can sink into William’s spine. But it is a short-lived victory before the mare whirls around on her captor. Her ears flatten to her head when I see it in her one blue eye -- there will be no saving this man. In one long stride she reaches him, mouth closing around his throat. His screams are garbled as the blood pours from his neck, spraying onto the mare’s face. She throws his body to the sand before finally letting him go. Men race to the scene, some going for the dying man while others chase the appaloosa.

William notices me at my perch only yards away. “Help them Callaghan!”

When I reach the men, they have the mare surrounded less than five feet from the sea. They are crying out different methods while she circles rapidly, snapping at them here and there. I shake my head; my heart hurts to see an animal in such distress.

I do not given anyone a chance to make a decision. Instead, I shove through them and move with the mare to keep my body in line with her shoulder. When she stops, I mimic her. My voice softens drastically, whispering in the same way the sea lulls me to rest every night. It keeps his still enough that I can take steps closer until finally, my hands touch her withers. She quivers beside me, breathing hard with one corner of her eye locked upon me. One hand grabs a piece of her mane while my mouth moves against her skin. I inch my free hand up her neck, reaching carefully for her bridle. We walk slowly the handful of feet to the water before I pull the leather from her head. Someone behind us yells. I don’t care. When the tide hits the mare’s hooves I step away, let her gallop into the water, watch her until the waves finally take her back from where she came.


Resident Fruit Tree
I get woken far too early by an annoyingly chirpy Laila. Does this woman even need sleep? All I want is to burrow back under the covers, but the smell of food from the tray my maid carries finally lures me out from my cocoon. With all the excitement yesterday evening, I ate very little and danced rather a lot and I notice it now as I eye the food Laila has brought.

Laila joins me on the large bed to share breakfast, a tradition by now but one I had to fight long and hard for. We chatter about the festivities yesterday and the rumours going around about various riders. Having met most of them yesterday I can follow along the conversation and even add my own impressions.

Dressed much more simply than yesterday in a plain blue gown with my hair in a single thick braid over one shoulder I prepare to face the day. My morning lessons snail by and I get more than one reproachful look from my various teachers who notice my inattentiveness. I keep thinking I can hear the cries of men and horses on the breeze that sometimes blows through the cracked window, though it is unlikely this high in the land facing part of the castle.

The afternoon finds me once again sitting in a window seat, an embroidery hoop forgotten in my lap as I stare outside. After talking to Callaghan and meeting the other riders, I feel more caged than ever in my tower, like a trapped princess from a fairy tale. Does that make Callaghan and his offer to take me to the beach my rescuing knight? I don’t like that idea too much. I’m not that helpless.

On that thought I jump up and rush out of the room, not even bothering to tidy away my embroidery things. By the time Laila has followed me into my dressing room, I have picked out a riding outfit and slipped out of my indoor gown. Knowing my moods, she stays quiet as she helps me with the laces, only leaving for a moment to warm my guards.

We make our way down to the courtyard, where I hope my horse, a dainty palomino mare called Willow, will be waiting. Normally I don’t like having her already groomed and saddled for me, but today I am glad for the prospect of getting out of these grey walls quickly. I can always take time with her when I get back.


Stoneborn Cannibal

When I come back from setting the appaloosa mare free, a hoard of protests wait for me. The group of men are all barking at me, calling my foolish and crazy. How could I let go of such a gorgeous aughisky? It’s a simple answer. She was more wild than even this beach could handle. She was made wholly of the sea, not one piece of her should be among men.

There’s a pool of blood in the sand where her dealer fell. His body has since been dragged off. I find William at the rock I’d been watching from.

“You should have known better,”
I say as I go to stand beside the boy. He drops his head, nodding. I had helped him some last year. He was thrown from his aughisky seconds into the race. The stallion had escaped back to the water and William had just narrowly avoided being trampled. It’s apparent that I’ll be aiding him again this year and if he actually listens he may just get to keep his water horse along with his life.

We go together down the beach, looking for his new mount. The aughisky come in every coat color possible, but like normal horses the majority are chestnut or bay with the occasional black or gray. Sometimes there is a buckskin or palomino, I even saw a roan my first year racing. Then there is Tomas’ tobiano stallion who may not win though is always a pretty sight to see. He tries a handful, always asking for my opinion after each short ride. Of them all I tell him to buy a bay mare, she has a thick blaze down her face and her hind left foot is white. He leaves the beach with her another hour later.

Jack finds me at some point in the afternoon, gives me half of a sweet roll. He captured his own aughisky the same year I got Falcon, a black stallion he named Neptune. We make our way from the beach together, him telling me of the different water horses and riders he’d met. Up on the cliffs I thank him for the roll before parting ways. I have to find the king.

He’s mounted on a huge black destrier, watching the events taking place on the beach. His guardsmen alert of him of me once I approach and he smiles at me, gesturing for me to come up. “Good day, Lord Callaghan. How do the contenders looks this year?”

It’s too son for me to truly know, but he is my king, so I indulge him, “Strong, your grace.”

Gradlon goes on to talk about the appaloosa mare from this morning. He praises my choice in letting the ocean take her back. We talk of Jack and Tomas and other riders I am familiar with then of the weather and my father and Falcon. His mood seems jolly, excited for the race. It seems as good a time as any to pose my question.

“If I may be so bold, your grace, I would ask your permission to bring your daughter to see Falcon this evening. She is… riveting and I would be grateful of the chance to spend more time with her.”

There’s a long pause between us as Gradlon looks out at the water, considering. He looks back at me finally, “To any other man I would absolutely forbid it, my lord. For you though I will make an exception. But I warn you now boy, if any harm befalls my child I will have that aughisky of your destroyed and you will spend your days below my castle in a cell, never to ride or see the sun again. Do you understand me?”

I nod, “Yes, your grace. Thank you.”

He sends me away after and I return to Falcon as the afternoon wanes away. I am cinching the saddle to his back when I hear footsteps behind us. Neora arrives and I’m surprised to see her alone rather than with a trail of guardsmen. I offer a small smile and bow to her in greeting. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, highness.”


Resident Fruit Tree
When waiting on the castle steps becomes too boring, I make my way to the stables, waving away the half of my guard that had stayed with me while the others got their own horses. Instead of taking the long way round to the equine side, I make sure I am out of sight of anyone and then duck through the door to the aughisky stables. The boxes for the dangerous horses, mostly empty when it isn’t riding season, are secured tightly enough that I should be safe from the few already stabled here. The doors are all solid, so I can’t even see the creatures held behind them.

I don’t expect anyone to be around; the goings on at the beach are meant to take all day and continue well into the evening, so I am quite surprised to come almost face to face with Lord Callaghan once my eyes have adjusted to the relative gloom of the stable.

At his greeting, I incline my head and murmur “Likewise, Lord Callaghan.” My attention is not on him at all though, but rather focussed solely on the beautiful being behind him. All animals have a grace humans have lost long ago, but this is different. The great grey horse exudes a passion and strength I have never seen before. There is none of the domesticity and relative docileness of normal horses. Even here, it smells of salt and sea, quite unlike the horses I was heading to meet. It seems to breathe freedom and wildness and I can only stand there, transfixed, basking in its glory.

Quite without realising it, I take a step forwards till I am level with Callaghan, close enough to touch the gleaming grey whithers. To me, the dappling on his coat looks like seafoam on a receding wave and I wonder if it will feel anything like water if I dare touch it.


Stoneborn Cannibal

Falcon turns his head immediately, ears pointing towards Neora. He breathes deeply, then stretches his long neck out towards her. Once he is content with her smell Falcon moves away. He lowers his head for his bridle like I taught him, keeps still as I latch the throat and nose bands. Most put iron bits in their aughiskys’ mouths. This only serves to infuriate most of them as well as put your fingers in the line of danger. I have never given Falcon the opportunity.

“You can pet him, princess,” I tell her finally, the reins in my hand the only thing tethering him.

Standing next to me, Falcon’s withers are nearly equal to my full height. He towers above the average horse like most aughisky. His legs are long, body slim but well-fed and muscular. When last I took a stick to him he measured at eighteen hands. He looks at me with one eye, anxious to be moving. He knows we’re going to run today, the anticipation makes it difficult for him to stay relaxed.


Resident Fruit Tree
My eyes are locked with the stallions until Callaghan moves past me and the water horse turns his attention back to him. I watch as the man treats this huge wild beast hardly differently than most would a usual horse; a certain brisk firmness with an underlying affection. He does not seem afraid at all and I realise I am not really either. Wary yes, but not afraid.

At his words, I can still only stare at him in astonishment for a moment. Pet an aughisky? And he says it with such nonchalance too, as though the thing at the end of the reigns he is holding is no more than a slightly oversized dog. The way he speaks about and acts around his horse makes me start to believe some of the rumours about him; that he has won the races since joining because his veins run salt water just like the aughisky. Briefly I wonder if he would eat me too, if given the chance.

Both rider and mount are still, almost statuesque, watching each other. Still half entranced, I reach out and trail my fingers over the smooth grey coat, first very lightly against the grain, then more firmly with it. I had expected it to be coarser. How can something so soft come from the depths of the harsh ocean?

I have both hands buried in the short hairs now; stroking every bit of the horse I can reach. I feel as if I am absorbing some of this aughiskys strength and wildness and it makes my mouth move quite without my volition, finally voicing part of the idea that started brewing in my mind during yesterday’s reception.

“Teach me to ride the aughisky?”

As soon as my mind has caught up with my traitorous mouth and I realise what I have just said, I rip my hands from the horses warm side as though he has burned me and take several steps backwards. My hands cover my mouth, even though it is far too late and I can’t take the words back. For the first time since entering the stable my full attention is on Callaghan, anxiously watching, trying to gauge how he will react.
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Stoneborn Cannibal

His gray hide shivers at another person’s touch; he is so used to my hands. He turns an ear towards the princess and I swear to all the gods he actually purrs. It is a sound I have only heard a few times, so soft it rarely escapes a water horse’s mouth. But then she asks me to teach her to ride. When she jumps back, Falcon throws his head, hopping sideways then screams.

Her question goes unanswered for a moment as I settle Falcon. I send him off in tight circles around me. If his body moves then his anxiety will leave him sooner than if I tried to hold him. The process takes several good minutes but sure enough he relaxes enough that I can trust him to stand beside me with only one hand holding his reins.

I have not forgotten Neora’s request. Rather than use words to answer I throw the reins over Falcon’s neck, slide one boot in the stirrup, swing atop his back, and offer my hand down to her. No one else has ever ridden him, but there is no other aughisky I would trust to carry her.


Resident Fruit Tree
I back up several paces more to give Callaghan space to calm his horse down. My hands feel cold now they have lost contact with the aughisky. I feel bad for spooking him so with my sudden movements. For a moment I contemplate simply leaving before I can do any more damage; my Willow is surely saddled and waiting for me and my guards wandering where I have got to, but watching Callaghan with this horse is fascinating, so I stay and watch silently.

Even when the horse is still again, Callaghan doesn’t say a word, only shoving a foot through the stirrup I am sure I wouldn’t be able to reach in trousers, let alone in skirts. When he holds out a hand to me, I stare dumbly at it. Astride this aughisky he towers over me, tall enough it seems to me for his hair to brush the vaulted ceiling of the stable.

I reach for his hand almost without thinking, ignoring the fact that my clothes are meant for a side saddle, not riding astride and astride is the only way I will even contemplate riding something like this horse, no matter how docile he becomes under Callaghans touch. I reach for that same touch now with my still frigid hands. Will his hand be as warm as his aughisky? They burn with the same passionate fire under the surface, a promise of a storm under the calm facade of the ocean. It’s a fire I felt briefly flare to life inside myself at the contact; a contact I already find myself yearning for again.


Stoneborn Cannibal

I wrap my hand tight around hers, the softness of her palm a welcome change from the course leather and bitter iron I am accustomed to handling. Falcon shifts his feet a bit as he adjusts to the princess’ added weight. I hold him there for a moment so Neora can find where she’s comfortable on his back behind me. He tosses his head just a bit in his impatience but he is far from wild like many of the other aughisky.

“You may want to hold on to me,” I warn her before loosening my grip on Falcon’s reins. He doesn’t need anymore than that to get him moving ahead in a bold trot.

Thankfully his excitement doesn’t cloud his mind’s ability to listen to me. I let him continue at his preferred pace until we are off castle grounds then I put my weight down in the saddle, pulling him up to walk. It’s still a quick, strong movement but certainly easier on Neora to balance herself. Falcon keeps his ears forward, completely unperturbed by a second rider’s presence. He lets out a high-pitched squeal in excitement as his hooves touch the sand. His muscles tense underneath us, eager to run.

I turns my head slightly to look at the princess, “He wants to stretch his legs, are you alright?”


Resident Fruit Tree
Callaghan lifts me up behind him as though I weigh little more than pail of milk. I shift along with the horse beneath me as I try to adjust my seat. I am thankful that my skirts are wide enough to not impede my sitting astride, but it is still slightly strange feeling, especially since I am essentially riding bareback.

At his direction, I hesitate for a moment before wrapping my arms lightly around Callaghans torso while still trying to retain a certain modicum of proper distance between us. As soon as his horse, who’s name I still don’t know, sets off at a brisk pace, I realise there is no hope of my staying in place if I cling to propriety, so instead scoot forwards and cling to Callaghan instead. We clatter out of the stable and across the courtyard, passing my guards and Willow on our way. I wave briefly at them, hoping I can convey that I am fine with the simple gesture. I think I see them mounting up to follow us, but then we are out of the main castle walls and heading towards the cliffs.

I am glad when Callaghan slows our mounts pace to a walk. Totting is no fun as a second passenger with little purchase on a horses slippery back. This water horse is in many ways even worse, his coat feels slick as waterweed and he moves just as freely and somewhat unpredictably as an unburdened animal would. Still his joy at being outside is almost palpable and quite infecting. I find myself smiling into Callaghans back and the only answer I can give his inquiry is a nod and a quiet “I’m fine.”as I tighten my grip on his jerkin.


Stoneborn Cannibal

kay,” I say, smiling. Falcon and I both share a love for galloping. Any slower is almost boring.

I make him walk out a bit further towards the ocean, trying to make sure we are in complete sand instead of the uneven rocky stuff that lines the edges between the grass cliffs and actual beach. Falcon begins to prance some, pawing into the damp earth. The water is close enough that he can hear her song, making it a little harder to hold him. I give a piece of his mane a sharp tug to let him know I am still here. He flicks his tail, an irritated acknowledgment.

Despite his obvious desire to move, I keep a hold on him for several steps along the surf, making sure he is listening to me. When I feel I have more of his mind than the sea does, I loosen my grip and give his ribs just the slightest touch with my heels. Falcon leaps into a steady gallop, fast enough but nothing compared to what he can really offer. I push my weight down in the stirrups, sliding my hands a few inches up his neck and lifting my seat off his back just slightly. His gait is as smooth as a rocking horse but with two people on him I figure it would be only fair of me to take some of the weight off.

I have no real way to time him, but he covers about a mile before I shift to slow him. The entire sprint he stays straight though one ear is always turned toward the ocean. It takes him several strides to ease down to a lope, a trot, and then finally he’s walking again. I circle him back in the direction we came to give him a moment to catch his breath, but he doesn’t really need it. His nostrils hardly flare at all as we make our way down the beach.

“Are you okay back there highness?” I ask over my shoulder.


Resident Fruit Tree
I stare out at the glittering expanse of water as we make our slow trek almost to where the surf licks at the sand. Even with clouds covering the sun the ocean winks at me like facetted glass in candlelight. It is quite beautiful and I have to remind myself of the dangers that lurk in its depths.

The next moment we are flying over the sand. Or at least that is what it feels like to me. Unable to brace myself like Callaghan does in his stirrups; I clutch at him and try my best to not dig my own heels into the aughiskys sides. My pulse speeds up to match the thunder of hooves against the sand and the wind whistles in my ears as it whips back my braid to snap in the air like a banner. A wild laugh escapes me; a sound I don’t recognise as the speed of our passage all but rips it from my lips.

It is over far too quickly. As Callaghan brings us back to a walk, I fight to catch my breath. If I had air to speak in that moment, I’m sure I would have whined like a child who has a toy taken away. If it were up to me, we would never have slowed down ever again. Callaghans use of my title pulls me back to earth with the suddenness of a stone thrown at my head. Another slow breath and I am princess Neora again, heir to the throne and bride prize to be won.

“Yes Lord Callaghan. Thank you.” In the distance I can see my guards as well as a riderless horse, my Willow no doubt, waiting close to the path that climbs up the cliffs. It seems my little adventure will end soon.


Stoneborn Cannibal

Silence falls between us as I take her back towards the guards. The tide rolls in gently, brushing against Falcon’s hooves as he walks. Beyond the ocean’s horizon the sun is halfway set, brilliant colors of purple, pink, and orange stretch through the cloudy sky above us. I am very used to the sight but it never fails to amaze me. This beach is enchanting all on its’ own, a magic I have been drawn towards for most of my life.

Three guards wait for us on their horses, one of them holding another palomino mare. They watch me carefully as I help Neora down from my aughisky’s back but otherwise remain quiet. I assume they know I already spoke to their king.

I glance back towards the sea. There was still some daylight left, plenty of time for more riding. “It’s not quite dark yet, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to ride with me a bit more?” The smile is still spread over my face as I ask, my blood rushing with the excitement of being back on Falcon. Her guards glare at me, already irritated for having taken off with their princess earlier. “Your father did give me permission to spend the evening with you. I figure we should make the best of what remains of it.”


Resident Fruit Tree
It takes me a moment to untangle my skirts enough to slide down from the aughiskys back. They have wormed their way under the saddle and around my legs, all but tying me to the horse. I manage to free myself without damaging any fabric and let Callaghan help me to the ground. I have to lock my knees and hold on to Callaghan for a moment to keep from toppling right over when my feet hit the sand.

His smile is so infectious that I cannot help but beam right back. I think I would have smiled in any circumstance if faced with so much open joy, let alone after the thrill of the ride we just had. His offer is hardly one I can refuse, especially if my father truly gave his consent. He must think very highly of this man. “Of course. It would be my pleasure.”

I feel a bit bow legged after sitting on the water horses broad back and can only hope it is just my imagination that makes the short walk to my guards feel more like a waddle than anything else.
Willow snorts at me as I approach, not liking the smell of predator that clings to me. Still she butts gently at my chest in greeting and snuffles at my pockets, looking for treats. I give her a small lump of sugar I had stashed away before mounting up. Side saddle feels odd now and I take a moment to adjust, fussing with my skirts and finally pulling on the riding gloves I had tucked into my belt as an excuse.

I address my guards, “Please gentlemen, Lord Callaghan and his aughisky are more than enough guard for me here. We will stay well in view and close enough.” Without waiting for any reply or protest, I nudge Willow into motion, heading along the beach in the opposite direction to the one we just came from.

I wait until we are out of earshot before turning to look at my companion and asking, “Did he really give you the whole evening?” I don’t want to imply that he lied, but I have some trouble believing my father would be so lenient. Being back to back race champion apparently has its perks.


Stoneborn Cannibal

I nod to her in reply, “Yes. My father was a good friend of his.”

Falcon walks beside the palomino mare, but his body is tensed. He wants to run again. The sea whispers to him as well, I can see it in the way one ear is always pointed towards the water. How he sometimes edges sideways hoping I won’t notice. I do and correct him each time. I do not believe he would harm me at this point but I am still so insignificant compared to his underwater home. He loves his salty mother. I could never blame him; sometimes I even find myself feeling sympathetic. I took him from the ocean, made him bend to me. I’ve considered releasing him so many times over the years, yet each time it crosses my mind it makes me feel sick.

“How do you feel about the race? Being married off to the winner, I mean.” Maybe it’s too personal of a question though I only realize it after the words have been said. She could just avoid answering or snap at me for being rude. Truthfully, I just want to know her thoughts on the matter. I have no desire to win simply because she is the prize. I never raced for the rewards, a girl I hardly knew was not going to change that.


Resident Fruit Tree
“I didn’t know that. Was your father a rider too?” I wonder how Callaghan came to take part in the races. He may be nigh sea blessed now, but that must have come from somewhere; he is after all still human.

I stiffen slightly at his sudden question, making Willow fidget in response. I lean forwards and smooth my fingers down her neck, calming her as well as myself, giving me time to think over my answer.

How do I feel about everything? I ask myself. I’ve hardly had much more warning about my father’s plans than the participating riders have, giving me little chance to adjust and think about the whole concept. Not that I really want to adjust to it. While my upcoming birthday proclaims me of marriageable age and practically an adult, I certainly don’t feel like one. I do not think I want to be bound to anyone in any form, but I know my duty to the realm and my father. A woman cannot rule alone, not even one that has been groomed to the task for years.

I cannot understand the reasoning behind my father’s descision. He is not that old, nor ill. I can’t think of any other reason for his sudden wish to marry me off so quickly and to a noble of our own lands as well. I had always thought I would marry for political alliance with one of our neighbours, a prospect hardly better than the one before me now, but one I was at least somewhat prepared for.

Finally I opt for the easy answer. “It is not my place to question the King.”

Still, his prompting once again reminds me of the hairbrained scheme that has been brewing in the back of my mind; born of childish petulance and fantasy, strengthened by the magic of the water horses I have now had the chance to experience myself.

I watch the aughisky beside me as we pick our way along the sand. Under Callaghans hands he behaves just like a spirited horse; one whose attention simply needs to be kept on the task at hand, rather than the dangerous predator everyone sees his kind as.

Partly wanting to pull our topic of discussion away from me and partly hoping for useful information, I ask, “Tell me how you came by him.” Nodding towards his mount.


Stoneborn Cannibal

“Yes. He won ten out of the nineteen races he was in. Rode a chestnut mare named Firefly.”

I notice her demeanor change when her horse shifts. I make a note to avoid asking that question again. Her discomfort becomes more apparent in the way she avoids answering and shifts the topic over to me.

Ours was a fairly basic story, mine and Falcon’s. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the story. “I was fifteen when I first saw him. He came out of the sea late one night about three weeks from race day. I couldn’t ride but I caught him anyway, we would have a year to prepare and I wouldn’t have to ride my father’s aughisky. He died during the race anyway though. Sometimes I feel like I traded him for Falcon.”

Not another minute later does a water horse emerge from the waves several yards away. It swims ashore easy and quick, shakes the saltwater from its’ fur before taking off away from us. Could’ve been either a dun or bay, it was too far from us to tell. Falcon stomps one hoof, screaming towards the wild aughisky. If it hears him, it doesn’t turn around. Good, I think to myself before turning back for Neora’s guards. That was enough of a warning to head back to the castle.

I don’t fear the aughisky, but their fights are brutal, loud explosions and I don’t feel like testing my stallion’s ability against another.


Resident Fruit Tree
Now I know the name of the water horse that has entranced me since I laid eyes on him. Falcon. Though he has next to nothing in common with the bird besides the fact that they are both predators and may have similar colouring, it suits him.

“I’m very sorry about your father.” I murmur. So he has lost a family member to the aughisky just as I have and yet like me, he does not label them all monsters like some who’s loved ones have been attacked.

I start at Falcons scream. It is easy to forget that he is not a normal horse under Callaghans firm command. Following the gaze of the one eye I can see, I catch sight of the other aughisky as it shakes itself, sending water droplets arcing through the air, glittering in the dying light. It canters away, not close or hungry enough to show any interest in us. I imagine it flicks its head in a rather dismissive way, as though we aren’t important enough for even a glance, though I am really too far away to see such a thing.

My own horse seems glad when we turn back towards my guards, who are waiting anxiously at the trail leading up the cliffs, picking up her pace just a little. Rather than look at the men, I stare out at the ocean into which the sun has almost fully disappeared by now. In what I hope is a rather off hand tone, I ask, “How do you catch a water horse? If I were free in the ocean, I wouldn’t want to come on land and have some person put a bridle on me.”