It had puzzled me slightly; being drawn out of school, told to pack my bags, handed a small brown envelope as I was bundled into the cab and sent off to the city. I hadn’t been told anything. Nothing.
As I sat in the cab, my breath steaming up the windows as I gazed at the countryside whizzing past, I thought about home. I had always taken it for granted. For my entire life I had lived in Azalea Mansion. I had explored every nook and cranny, every passageway and room hidden behind the hundreds of bookcases and statues. I knew it so well.
But now I was heading away from it, to the place I hated so much. The city. The cab driver was a stone faced old man who had been with us for three years. I didn’t dare talk to him, he never replied anyway.
Slowly the countryside began to become littered with the odd village. Clusters of thatched houses and farms. I leant back into the seat and closed my eyes. I didn’t exactly fall asleep, I just lost track of time. My eyes fluttered open as the cab drew up at the side of the road.
I opened the door and slid down onto the cobbled floor. I twisted my head from on side to the other taking in my surroundings. It was grubby and dull. The pollution from factories covered the roads and the houses with a blanket of soot, which moved in great waves as each cab went by. Slowly I turned and walked around the cab. I ran my hand down the nose of the large cab horse that had dragged me all the way here. It dark eyes peered at me past its blinkers and gave a soft nicker as if it was saying sorry.
I looked away from the soft eyes and up at the harsh building we had parked in front of. My eyes widened at its size. It was made of entirely white stone, and over the large wooden doors it simply read “The Academy.” I felt myself shiver and gave a nervous giggle as I didn’t know why I was so scared.
I walked back round the cab to collect my bags, although secretly knowing that I didn’t want to look at the building anymore and instead wanting to jump into the cab and drive home. But as soon as I had removed my belongings from the snug, velvet covered interior and closed the door, my driver yelled out to the horse to move on and drove off into the crowded streets.
So as I walked, slowly, up the cold, marble steps of the massive building I realised that I had missed one small detail. For the entire of the four hour journey, I hadn’t opened that envelope.
The hallway was bustling with others like me; new, puzzled and slightly scared. Our suitcases were labelled with our names and carted off. A single adult rounded us up and guided us into a courtyard where we were handed a faceguard, lame jackets and gloves. It wasn’t until we were moving in a single file and individually receiving a foil that I realised that they were going to ask us to fight.
It came as quite a shock. The first thing we were being asked to do on our first day was to fight each other. I frowned. Perhaps I should have read that brown envelope before arriving. I was paired against a girl, the same height as me, whose blond hair had been tucked up into a roll on the back of her head. She gave me what appeared to be an evil glare and the glint in her eyes never left the whole time I was fighting her.
I started of slow. Trying to remember my fencing lessons, which I had had to give up two years previously, but I soon found my rhythm. Gently I would stab in, towards her belly, allowing her to knock me away. She would swiftly return the jab with a sequence of swift lunges before retreating. I played with her, trying not to let her know my strengths and weakness as she in turn played with me. I noticed that she often didn’t extend as she tried to lunge, and this brought her body too close for her liking. I decided to take a risk. With her next lunge I span sideward’s, dodging her attack and in turn bringing me swiftly inwards to her unguarded flank. My arm whipped out and tapped her torso. A whistle blew and I turned, without meeting the girls gaze, back into the crowd.
I could feel the blood rushing through my veins and all of a sudden I felt very dizzy. Gently, trying not to attract attention or hurt myself I sank to the floor. As I sat there I closed my eyes and tried to take deep breaths. I was aware of everything. There was so much noise. The swish of the foils and the patter of the footsteps as each opponent tried to dodge each other. The gasp of the audience as a point was nearly scored. But there was more than that. I could hear the cabs in the road beyond, a detail that had been shielded from my ears by the protective rectangular structure around me. There were birds twittering in the trees, and the trees themselves, moaning in the gentle wind, their branches swaying from side to side.
Gradually I became aware of a presence crouching beside me. My eyes flickered open and I gazed up into the eyes of one of the professors who appeared to be judging us. He could only have been in his early twenties and his long hair draped around his shoulders. He smiled gently and held out a flask. I gratefully took it and took a sip of the watered down drink inside. My first instinct was to keep drinking. There was something in this drink which I was attracted to. It made me feel stronger and it slowed my heart rate. But I pushed the drink away from me in confusion.
The professor helped me to my feet and I returned to the crowd to watch the others finish off fighting. My head was still spinning slightly but I felt more secure on my feet. I noticed the occasional odd glance in my direction but I chose to ignore it. I had done something out of the ordinary, but I couldn’t figure out what.
Next we were led through an archway in the rectangular courtyard to an open space, something I would have never of imagined to have seen in this city, and over to a wooden building. As I entered the smell of fresh hay and leather reached my nose. It was very familiar to me and it felt like home.
We had many horses at the mansion. Only three of them belonged to us, two cab horses and an old mare who I had ridden, no matter what the weather was like, all throughout my childhood. We kept them in a smaller stable near the house. Further away, across the paddock, was a second, much larger stable. It could hold up to one hundred horses at a time and there were times when they full. Many of the horses belonged to racing trainers who kept the horses at our stable because of the training site we owned. The other horses were normally there in the hunting season, when the hounds came down from the kennels and hunting parties would go out in search of foxes.
I had been hunting just twice. My mother was very protective over my health. I have never once broken a bone, despite the many falls I have encountered whilst riding. Both times I felt the thrill of the chase and the victory as the fox was caught. I was always urging my horse, a chestnut mare I borrowed from my Uncle, to the front of the party.
I brought myself back to the present as a professor, a tall, elegant woman, her hair tied back in a bun, wearing a pair of brown jodhpurs and a white shirt, coupled with a lace scarf, introduced our next task to us.
I almost laughed at the simplicity of it. We were to walk out to the paddock and chose a horse, bring it back to the stables and tack it up. There were murmurs of excitement from the others but I chose to stay quiet. Surely there had to be some sort of trick?
We moved out into the paddock, which was glowing green in the sun that had peeped out from behind the murky fog above us, and dotted around were some of the most beautiful horses that I had ever seen. We hoped over the gate and lined ourselves up against the fence. As soon as we were told to go the others ran of towards the groups of horses, who started and shield away from the screaming mob.
I stayed, stood against the fence, observing the mess, trying to pick out a horse I thought was suitable. There were horses of all shapes and colours. But one caught my eye. He was stunning. A rabicano, Arabian stallion of about 15.5hh, being chased by a small boy. I was awestruck by its elegance as it swiftly darted away from the hands which reached out to grab his long flowing mane.
The Arabian stallions were a rare find in Europe at present. They had only just been introduced but they were becoming more popular, because of their endurance and speed. My Uncle had told me that the military were training a few up for war, but apart from that I hadn’t seen any recently.
The stallion took one last skip backwards away from the boy, who gave up and ran off to try another. As if it had sensed me admiring it, he turned to face me. I was immediately caught in his gaze, swimming in his murky brown eyes. It was as if I could see inside him. He was a mischievous young horse, barely old enough to be in training, and I could tell that he was going to be a handful. But I didn’t care. We connected and I knew that this was what was expected of us.
As I took a step towards him, he mirrored me, and continued to do so until we met in the middle. I gently raised my hand towards his nose, allowing him to chose when I could touch him. He gently pushed back with his nose and gave a gentle breath, as if as a greeting.
He wasn’t wearing a bridle so I reached up and placed my hand on the back of his neck and walked along side him back to the stables, past the gorgeous professor who stood, looking exceptionally pleased, although I could see the slight shock beneath her eyes.
Back in the warmth of the stables I cleaned his coat with the selection of brushes and left him munching on some hay to go in search of his tack. The tack room smelt of new and old leather, mixing together to make my nose wrinkle at the strength of the smell. Along the far wall were a long line of saddles, paired with their bridles. Each one was named.
It was one puzzle after another. As I looked at the horses names I noticed that they were all named after horses from mythology;
Bucephalus, a semi-legendary horse of Alexander the Great
Centaur, part human, part horse
Hengroen, King Arthur’s horse
Llamrei, King Arthur’s mare
Pegasus, a winged horse
Silenj, another name for a part human, part horse
Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse
Trojan, the wooden horse from the Trojan war
Arvak and Alsvid, pulled Sol’s chariot
Baku, horse bodied dream eaters
Dyaus Pita, the sky father who appears as a horse
Embarr, Niamh’s horse
Gandharva, male nature spirits, usually part horse
Hofvarpnir, gna’s horse
The mares of diomedes, fed on human flesh
Skinfaxi, Dagur’s horse
Unicorn, horse with a horn and blood which can make you immortal
But one name stood out to me. Arion. In Greek mythology Arion was a divinely bred, extremely swift immortal horse which was endowed which speech. I knew, as soon as I remembered this information, that this was the name of the stallion that had chosen me.
I walked over to the tack and stroked the fine leather saddle. I lifted off the stand, surprised by its lightness, and took it back to Arion. He turned slightly as I tried to place the saddle on his back, helping me to do so. He wanted me to ride him and that made me excited. He wasn’t so keen on the bit on the bridle and I knew that at some point, when I was more used to him, we would be able to ride without any tack.
As I finished threading the straps through the small buckles I heard footsteps. I turned to see who else had managed to capture there horse and came eye to eye with the blond girl I had fought earlier in the fencing challenge. Her horse, I noticed, was female and looked very gentle and tame, characteristics I was very surprised to see matched with the fire of the girls fight.
She gave me a quick smile before putting her horse in one of the blocks and heading of the tack room. I followed her. Her smile had confused me. Earlier on she had given me what I had assumed to be an evil glare and I wanted to be sure that our peace had been made.
I nearly walked into her as I opened the tack room door. She was stood, gazing in wonder and confusion at the row of saddles.
“Would you like any help?” I asked, afraid to startle her. She turned and again smiled warmly.
“Yes please. How did you choose yours?”
I didn’t want to sound stupid, but I wanted to be honest. If I was going to be stuck here for the next few years of my life I might as well attempt to make friends,
“I don’t know really.” I said quite simply. “The names of the horses are all from myths, and I remembered that Arion was an immortal horse. I just knew when I looked at the name that that was the name of my horse.”
“Right.” The girl sighed and turned back to the tack. As I watched her she closed her eyes and began to hum. I stepped back to allow her room to think and watched in awe and she opened her eyes and walked over to the tack named Skinfaxi. The tack was a light beige colour, and much thinner than my own.
She picked up the tack and walked back into the stable, smiling at me, with a glint of happiness in her eye. I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to know how she had chosen so I followed her back to her stall.
Without even looking at me the girl began to talk, I wasn’t sure whether she was address the horse or myself.
“Skinfaxi is the horse of Dagr, day personified. The name is a bahuvrihi meaning shining mare. Skinfaxi pulled Dagr’s chariot across the sky every day and her mane lit up the sky and the earth below.” I looked back at her horse. She was a strawberry roan, with a glowing strawberry blond mane. The name, I thought, definitely suited her.
“I’m Jade, by the way.” The girl turned back to me and smiled again. “And great fighting earlier on. How did you manifest your powers so quickly, and your so young as well.” I looked at her, confused. “Unless, of course, you can’t grow old?” She added hastily.
I stood there, in shock silence and for a minute we both stood there, staring at each other, until, at last, a look of shock swept over her face.
“Oh my god!” She exclaimed. “You don’t know, do you?”